Friday, July 29, 2005

Work work work. Meetings meetings meetings.

It has been a busy week, reminescent of the time a few years ago when our 7 year old daughter said one night as I dashed up from the supper table to a committee meeting, "That's my dad. Work work work. Meetings meetings meetings."

I took that to heart. When my second three-year term on the Friends School board ended, I then took a quasi-sabbatical from any on-going, out-of-the home, meeting or community responsibilities. I finished my last year as assistant clerk of the meeting and did accept a nomination to a 3-meeting-a-year board during this time, but otherwise was pretty faithful at saying "no." Near the end of that year, I left my full-time job to take a half-time one (I've since gone to 80%) and felt much more free and open, with hardly a twinge of guilt.

It was during this time that I came to terms with the severe depression that had been clouding my life for too many years and got the treatment I needed. Things felt in balance.

Gradually, though, I've been accepting things that I've been asked to do if I feel a call to do them and they make sense, particularly if they're time limited, e.g., teacing a 7-week Quakerism 101 class, serving on a marriage or membership committee. The pace has generally been OK, but this past week or two particularly intense -- even with both children off to camps -- and I'm kind of wrung out. I'm trying right now to get this post off and prepare for our annual Nightengales singing weekend that begins tonight. Singing always helps me.

All of this is a long way of saying that I haven't found the time to publish a new post. But I will post these two short excerpts from two Pendle Hill pamphlets that I excerpted for the newsletter. Each make points that strike me as perfectly in tune with my own thinking and say it more clearly than I could at the moment.

From The Practice of the Love of God by Kenneth Boulding, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 374. © 2004 by Pendle Hill:

Indeed, the Love of God is the only sure foundation for the love of neighbor. Without the love of God the command to love our neighbor is a monstrous sarcasm, the imposition on humankind of impossible conflict between the moral sense and the will. For even though we may agree, intellectually, that the height of morality is to love our neighbor, how can we do this if our neighbor is not lovable, and more, if our neighbor is also our enemy? How can I love the Germans, who [in 1942], with seeming wantonness, have destroyed the prim suburb in which I first grew, who have unroofed the chapel in which I first learned the things of God and the meetinghouse in which I joined the Society of Friends? How can we love those who out of the lust for power have crushed under foot the tender plant of European liberty and cooperation, and made of Europe a hell of hatred, hunger, and bitterness that generations will hardly fill up? . . . How can a German love the English and the Americans, who are threatening to starve him for a second time into submission, and who are exposing him to a defeat that will bring revenge, desolation, and chaos to his homeland?

There is only answer to these questions: we can only love our enemies, we can only truly forgive a wrong by the overflow of the love and forgiveness of God.
From Living in Virtue, Declaring Against War: The Spiritual Roots of the Peace Testimony by Steve Smith. Pendle Hill pamphlet 378, © by 2005 Pendle Hill:
At its inception, and throughout most of the history of the Religious Society of Friends, the Peace Testimony has been understood not as a general philosophical principle, but as the expression of changed lives, the fruit of personal spiritual transformation. . . .

To assert a general principle calls for a certain sort of consistency: what I assert as a rule of good conduct, I must strive to live by, or stand accused of hypocrisy. . . Principle integrity is top-heavy: first a judgment of the mind, then the conforming action.

In contrast, Friends’ testimonies are not judgments of the mind but voices of the heart. . . .Quaker integrity is not mere logical consistency, but deep authenticity: not merely conforming one’s behavior to one’s professed principles, but speaking of what one has become, “talking the walk”. . . .When I yield to the Christ within, right action flows naturally.

The Peace Testimony exemplifies not principle pacifism but testimony pacifism. . . Without its spiritual ground the Peace Testimony is profoundly weakened. It becomes merely a “Peace Principle” – one partisan position among others, subject of debate, contention and counterexample.. . .
Off to sing!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The core of Quakerism

Our meeting is undergoing a year-long process to discern what its ministries are, and how to organize itself to perform them. One of the first steps in the process was to ask Friends "What is the core of the meeting to you?"

I remember saying this in response in one meeting for worship: I'm not sure I like the metaphor of the "core" of the meeting, or of Quakerism. It makes me think of some kind of irreducible matter, like the wire core of a rope. But then I got to thinking that the core of the Earth is liquid, a molten mass that is alive and always moving. And the core of an apple or a peach is where the seed is, where the life and the future is, and with that in mind, that seed is an apt metaphor describing the core of the meeting to me.

Yesterday, I came across this article by Chuck Fager in the latest issue of Quaker Theology entitled "The Core of Quaker Theology: Is There Such a Thing?" In it, Chuck makes a similar observation:

. . . I want to raise questions about the notion of a "core" Quaker theology as a metaphor. It suggests that Quaker thought is like an apple, which at the center has a few seeds that are its heart and hope for the future. Or perhaps itÂ’s imagined to be like the core layers of a tree trunk, sometimes bending with strong winds but nonetheless standing resilient and steady at the center while the years add layers of history around the edges.

These are strong, comforting images. But I want to suggest that Quakerism may not be like that. Or at least, not like the tree trunk. The seeds, perhaps. ThatÂ’s because the seeds can carry not only continuity, but change.

He goes on to develop a thesis that, at the core of Quakerism is not a single, essential doctrineexperiencece, or any other "thing", but a number of parallel but overlapping "trajectories", always in motion:
[F]rom the Gospel of John . . . Jesus speaks of the spirit as being like the wind, . . . we hear the sound of it, but we don't know where it's coming from or where it's going. Religious trajectories are subject to those winds too. You can think of them as elements of the "core" if you like, but elements in motion through time and space, motion through our minds and experience, motion from being pushed and nudged by the wind of the spirit. And more important, this motion is not incidental; it's part of the essence of the elements. Quakerism isn't and never was a static thing. It moves and is moved.
He concludes:

If anything must be the "core" of Quaker theology, I commend this image to your consideration: wrestling with our tradition and experience as a people, and wrestling with what this can mean for us today and tomorrow. What we're doing today is an example of this. Don't worry about becoming too weary; you will also have time outs, periods of rest and blessed community in the process.

But wrestle we must, because we do not struggle alone, or only with each other. We are also struggling with the One who called us to be a people, and calls us still, and can still bless us, Friends, if we do not let go.

As is often the case, I find Chuck's insights penetrating and full of hope. I commend this article to anyone concerned with the renewal of the Society of Friends as a prophetic witness to the world. (It's also satisfying to find baseball used as an illustration in a discussion of Quakerism. It makes my evenings listening to ballgames seem less frivolous.)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Reading Ratzinger

This week's (July 25) The New Yorker has a very interesting piece by this title written by Anthony Grafton about Joseph Ratzinger. (Alas, it's not in the on-line edition.) It appears as if Ratzinger as a young theology student and theologian was considered a liberal, part of the movement that was opening of the Church, as encouraged by the second Vatican Council. In particular, he wrote about how there may be elements of the Truth that are not found within the Church, and that Catholics were right to find them and incorporate them into the Church's theology and ritual.

One passage particularly grabbed me. When Ratzinger wrote his second dissertation (which he needed to become a professor), he wrote about St. Bonaventure, a leader of the newly formed Franciscan Order and how Bonaventure mediated between two conflicting schools of Franciscan thought. The "Spirituales" insisted that the Franciscans return to the strict rule of Francis "who, like Jesus, had told his disciples to take no thought for the morrow." The other school, the "Relaxati" "accepted the need for the order to own property so that it could educate its members and secure continuity." (Do I hear echoes of Storey-Wilkenson controversey?)

Ratzinger showed how Bonaventure successfully synthesized these two schools of thought, agreeing with the Relaxati that earthly continuity and institution-building was a worthy activity, but adopting some of the Spirituales' critique to remind the institution-builders of the spiritual basis of what they were doing.

According to Grafton, Ratzinger showed how "the most exalted figures in the Church [e.g., Bonaventure] could learn new truths even from men who challenged orthodox doctrine; within carefully prescribed limits, the hierarchy could learn from its heretics."

However . . . Ratzinger's dissertation was rejected by one of his readers

because it argued . . . that "revelation," for Bonaventure and his contemporaries, referred not only to Scripture buy also to "something greater than what is merely written down, 'a transaction between God and a 'receiving subject.'"
By the late-1960s, however, Ratzinger found himself on the conservative side of the divide, unable to follow the movement he helped start to its radical conclusion. He noted that "many Catholics moved from a narrow, inward-fixed Christianity to an uncritical openness to the world," and found this development dangerous.

I find myself sympathetic with Ratzinger insofar as his criticism is on an uncritical openness to the world, rather than on openness per se. I do wonder whether he has gone too far the other way, walling the Church from even worthy innovation and light in an effort to keep unworthy tendencies at bay (Grafton says this is what has happened), but I understand his concern.

I found this article illuminating on the questions of Quaker identity that Friends like Liz Oppenheimer and Martin Kelly and others have written about. My own objection and discomfort with the rhetoric of many of my fellow-liberal Quakers is their unwillingness to evaluate or judge -- or discern, to use the technical word -- the value of innovations to historic Quaker faith and practices, and in fact talk about such discernment as if it were itself a heretical practice. To me, there is a world of difference between saying, "There are many paths to God" and "Every path leads to God." The path being followed by those who murdered (by last count) 83 people in Egypt last night does not lead to God.

Friday, July 22, 2005

What God has joined together . . .

My son’s baseball team won its playoff game Tuesday night, so he had another one on Wednesday. It started at 6:15. I had a marriage clearness committee meeting to attend at 7, so I drove to the ball field immediately after work, hoping to catch the first couple of innings perhaps before I had to go to my meeting.

Because I love my son, and especially because his team played so exceptionally well on Tuesday and had a good chance of winning again, I really wanted to stay for the game and had more than half a mind to call the couple at whose home we were meeting to tell them that a family-related conflict had arisen after our meeting was scheduled and I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting.

I walked from the bleachers to the car intending to call them with that message, but when I got there and turned the phone on, I started to weigh the choices. On the one hand, I was worried that I’d only be a half-hearted participant at the committee meeting if I went there and that it wouldn’t be helpful or fair for the couple to have only half of my already limited talents. On the other, I felt the tug of responsibility, of the commitment I’ve made to the couple and the rest of the committee to complete this work and the knowledge of how my particular perspective was needed.

I’ve been trying to be more attentive to my initial feelings about things, a la Blink , but in this case I let my superego control and went to the meeting.

I’m glad I did.

* * * * *
This has been a delightful clearness process, with a solid young couple and a committed, intelligent, thoughtful, and loving clearness committee, though not without its challenges.

One of the challenges has been trying to articulate what it means to be married after the manner of Friends, or under the care of the meeting. It’s a challenge in part because the couple has been attending meeting regularly for only about one and two years respectively and they haven’t had much time to observe Friends’ marriages and haven’t attended a Friends wedding yet. Which means that part of the committee’s work is to educate them what a Quaker marriage (and wedding) is.

This, to me, has been the bigger challenge, mainly because I don’t know whether those of us on the committee are necessarily in agreement as to the answer to the questions or, perhaps more precisely, how to talk about it (even though I served on the marriage committees of two of the other four members of the committee).

But it has forced me to try to articulate what I think marriage means in a way that I don’t think I have since I was married sixteen years ago. Here’s how I’d say it now. I invite comments from Friends.

Marriage is a covenant made between and in the presence of two adults, the Living God, and the church (i.e., a meeting of Friends) in which the marrying adults promise, with Divine Assistance, to be loving and faithful marriage partners to each other as long as they both shall live, and the life that is lived under that covenant.
To unpack this a little:

A covenant. . . A covenant is a solemn, binding promise between two or more parties to be in a particular relationship – “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Here's a technical, definition, found in the foreward to Doug Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism, quoting political scientist Daniel Elazar:
A covenant is a morally-informed agreement or pact between people or parties having an independent and sufficiently equal status, based upon voluntary consent and established by mtual oaths or promises witnessed by the relevant higher authority. A covenant provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect with protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting, promising, and agreeing. Most are meant to be of unlimited duration, if not perpetual.
A covenant differs from a contract (i.e., a civil marriage) in that a contract simply creates duties and remedies – enforceable by law – and defines the parties to the contract solely in terms of those duties. The covenantal promise to be a marriage partner – to be loving and faithful to each other for life – can’t be broken down into discrete duties with consequences for violation; the covenant defines the entire relationship. Loss of the relationship is punishment enough for breaking the covenant; no amount of damages or compensation can restore it.

. . . made between and in the presence of two adults . . . . The promises are made between the people, directly, without the necessary mediation of priest or magistrate. The legal recognition of a marriage may be required to enjoy the legal protections and privileges offered by the state, but those benefits are obtained after the fact by the ministerial act of registering the marriage with the state. The state’s recognition or approval plays no part in a spiritual marriage.

While historically the marriage covenant has been understood to be between a woman and a man, I do not understand why this should be considered to be an essential requirement. New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth. While there may be some reasonable way to distinguish some subtle distinction between a same-sex and different-sex union, I don’t see any compelling reason to do so; whatever distinction there may be is without practical difference, as far as I can tell. I do still understand the marriage covenant – or, at least, one that I am able to participate in and witness – to be limited to two people.

. . . the Living God . . . What God has joined, let no man break asunder. The Living God is both a witness and a party to a marriage covenant, the transcendent authority to which the other parties look to for absolute faithfulness and certainty. As a witness, God’s presence serves as the most potent reminder of the seriousness of the promises being made; you don’t make promises in front of God for light and transient reasons. In this sense, marriage is as close to an oath that Quakers come, I think.

As a party, the Living God assists the parties in keeping their promises. The marriage promise to be loving and faithful to each other is made – and can honestly be made, in view of human frailty – only “with Divine Assistance.” The Living God therefore becomes an active -- and absolutely faithful -- partner in the marriage, available for consultation, consolation, direction, the fair arbiter and witness to which a disputing couple can turn when they're tied up in knots. (I’m indebted to Kenneth Boulding for this insight. He once wrote that a young man considering asking a woman to marry him usually asks “Does she love me?”, but that the more important question is, “Does she love God?”)

. . . and the church. . . A covenant must be made in public. It is witnessed by others in order to help remind the parties of the promises they made, of the relationship they created. The witnesses therefore become parties to the covenant themselves by assuming the duty of remembering and reminding. In a meeting where there are many married couples, this web of interrelationship strengthens the entire meeting’s bonds of mutuality and accountability. This is the sense in which I understand a marriage “under the care of the meeting” to be most meaningful.

(The making of a covenants classically also includes a tangible, visible sign as a reminder – a ring, a rainbow, wine & bread, a signed treaty, circumcision, etc. – but I think Friends would not view a tangible symbol as a necessary element of a marriage, though I do think that the signed marriage certificate psychologically serves this function.)

. . . in which the marrying adults promise, with Divine Assistance, to be loving and faithful marriage partners to each other as long as they both shall live. . . This, I think, is the hardest part of the definition, because it is so malleable and begs rather than answers the questioin: What does being a “loving and faithful marriage partner” mean? It obviously relates to a wide range of human activity: sex; division of labor; children and child-rearing; economics; politics; vocation and career, etc. Is there some distinctly Quaker or Christian or Godly answer to what "loving and faithful" means in each of these contexts? Is it up to each couple to negotiate for themselves?

While there are some easy answers at the margins (being faithful precludes sexual relationships with others; being loving precludes domination or violence towards each other), I think I have to accept that each married couple largely negotiates these things for themselves, guided with Divine Assistance. What being a “marriage partner” (f.k.a. “spouse”) means to any individual or couple is so loaded with spoken and unspoken assumptions, informed by culture, experience, etc. that helping the couple give voice to their assumptions and sort through these questions is one of the most important functions a marriage clearness committee can perform.

(Nowadays, some try to put meat on the bones of what being “loving and faithful marriage partners” means by addressing it in their public vows – to support each other, to be honest and forthright, to honor differences, to give time to be alone, to work together for social justice, etc. I don’t understand why they feel the need to do this in their vows (though I did this in my first, failed marriage); perhaps there are particular issues that each wants to be able to remind the other of (“you promised to give me my own space. . .”); perhaps they want to personalize the familiar pattern of vows from the Book of Common Prayer’s beautiful formulation: “To love, comfort, honor and keep for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And forsaking all others, be faithful so long as we both shall live.” But as a witness to such vows, they usually sound idiosyncratic to me, personal to the couple and difficult for me to remind them of if occasion arises. I have never heard any that improve on the traditional, direct, and elegant “In the presence of God and these Friends, I take thee to be my partner, promising, with Divine Assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful partner as long as we both shall live.”)

. . . and the life that is lived under that covenant. I think Friends often confuse "marriage" with "wedding." A lot of people have complained that our meetings don't spend nearly the energy in supporting the marriages under their care as they do the weddings.

To me, this fact reflects something else I've noticed, that "belonging to" a meeting is a lot like being married to the meeting, and that a person seeking to become a formal member of the meeting should receive the same energy and attention, be asked the same hard questions, we give to marrying couples. If we were as certain that members of our meeting share a common understanding of what membership means as we are that couples agree as to what marriage means to them, we'd have stronger meetings -- and stronger marriages, I'd bet.

* * * * *

Whew. It feels weird to be thinking aloud like this; I already disagree with half of what I've written (well, some of it, anyway), but I have to bring this session to a close.

What I really want to know is, how do you (or your meeting) define "marriage"? How do you share that definition and hold each other accountable to it? Have you participated in a marriage clearness process where the couple's relationship to each other or to the meeting was such that you couldn't approve the marriage?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A time to lose

The theme of meeting this morning was "letting go."

The initial minister spoke in a heart-felt, emotional way about her sadness at the impending death of the friend I spoke of in my last post. She also suggested that she's undergoing a renewed, severe economic crisis that may cause her to lose her house and garden, and referred to a family who had to euthanize its beloved dog yesterday. Her main point -- more bluntly and inelegently than how she said it -- was that it's all in God's hands anyway, and that most of what we're really losing isn't really so much our life or home, but our sense of control, and since control is an illusion anyway, why cling to it?

A number of messages that followed were in a similar vein, of accepting the inevitable and trusting in God. One Friend cautioned not to give up too soon and that sometimes you need to rage against the night. The meeting felt solemn, and sober, but not somber. The messages were comforting, and there was a sweetness to it.

My contribution, which was not spoken, would have begun with a quote attributed to Kenneth Boulding. He was asked, "Kenneth, how do you know you're saved?" "When none of me is wasted," he replied.

Few of us mourn losing something that has been used up, worn out, that has done its job, whose time is up. Most of the real sadness and pain I've had is tied up in having wasted the time, the relationship, the job, whatever it is that I lost, not the thing itself.

It's like the parable of the talents, where the man who earned the master's wrath was the one who didn't use what he had. By "saving" it, he lost it; the talent was wasted, and he was lost.

On the cross, Jesus couldn't let go and say "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit" until he had first cried, "It is finished."

For my dying friend and her partner and their families, the inherent pain of the loss is exacerbated by the sense of its prematurity -- the fact that she is young (in her 50s) makes it harder to let go and accept. But now that it is clear that her life is approaching its end, there is comfort (to me, anyway) in knowing that she lived her life fully, that she gave what she had, and that her life and her talents were not wasted.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Heaven is my home

Late last night, I received word from my dear Friend Elizabeth that her partner, Louann, had decided to “let her life come to an end,” meaning that she had decided not to accept a feeding tube in order to gain the weight and strength necessary to continue chemotherapy for the ovarian cancer she was found to have about three months ago. Today, they were meeting with the palliative care people to make arrangements for Louann to go home to die.

The news felt like a blow to my chest.

I have been part of a group of people – dubbed the Merry Pranksters – organized by a Friend on our meeting’s committee of ministry and counsel to provide support, fun, and diversion to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, each of my times to be with her had to be cancelled at the last minute because of a sudden change in Louann’s condition or needs. But I was cheered by the efforts of my fellow Pranksters to give Elizabeth some semblance of a normal life: a walk in the woods near their home; a trip to an art museum to see this exhibit; a movie; and the one I most regretted being unable to attend, singing to Louann and Elizabeth in the hospital.

The immediate purpose of Elizabeth’s call was to ask me to do some legal work that she and Louann and I had discussed earlier and which Louann’s decision had made necessary. I met with them this afternoon at the hospital, and I’ve done the work they wanted. While I have mostly enjoyed my work as a lawyer-employee of larger organizations (the state supreme court, attorney general, a large corporation, and, now, a large hospital system), I’ve regretted that I haven’t found a way to use my skills and experience to help individuals directly. So I was happy to be able to help them in this small, concrete way.

When I arrived at the hospital, Elizabeth was discussing Louann’s memorial service with another friend – an Episcopal priest, it turns out – and how to incorporate a Quaker-like unprogrammed meeting for worship in the context of an otherwise Jewish liturgy. It was heartbreaking to sit there, just outside Louann’s room, discussing the service, but it needed to be done, and Elizabeth approached it with her typical combination of rational sanity and emotional vulnerability; as painful as this is, she has been preparing for a moment like this for a very long time, building the character and practice necessary to experience the reality and the pain fully, but with equanimity.

* * * * *

Elizabeth and I taught a Quakerism 101 course this past winter, ending just a week before Louann was diagnosed. In our last session, one of the participants asked what Quakers thought about the afterlife. Our answer was “not much.” Neither of us recalled reading any writing by a Friend discussing life after death, except for some who have expressed belief in some kind of reincarnation. Instead, Friends seem to have accepted the biblical definition of heaven as being completely in the presence of God and argued that such an experience could be achieved prior to death. Salvation means being liberated, from bondage to our sin in this world, not some idealized world hereafter.

I was pretty satisfied that our answer was an accurate representation of traditional Quaker thought on the subject, and fairly described my own sense of it, but one of the students asked, “But where’s the comfort in that? What do you say to someone whose loved one has died if you can’t assure them of a better life in the hereafter?”

I could not answer her.

That is, I simply do not know or have any “real” idea of what happens to a person metaphysically after the death of the body that I could use to reassure a dying person or comfort a grieving one. Is there a spirit or a soul continues to exist in some other realm? If so, what is it like? Are there different realms to which the soul may go? If so, how is this determined? Or does it simply end, a fade to black and an end to consciousness? I really don’t know, or know if it’s knowable. This is one area where I am radically ignorant.

But it now occurs to me that what my Friend was asking about wasn’t a metaphysical question about the material nature of a non-Earthly reality, but a pastoral one about how to help people think about and relate to the fact of death. For example, Lewis Benson writes that George Fox seldom used the phrase “that of God in every man” in his doctrinal vocabulary – that which explains reality, like the doctrine of the Inner Light or the Day of Visitation – but almost exclusively as part of his pastoral vocabulary, the concepts he used to help Friends live in that reality.

Similarly God gives us the creation story in Genesis not as an historical, factual account of the physical origins of the universe the way you’d describe how to bake a cake; rather, God gives us the story in order to explain the relationship between God and creation in order to help us understand it and to live our lives in it more fully.

It’s the same way that Van Gogh has described the beauty of Arles in his non-photographic but highly evocative style of painting. You wouldn’t want to use his paintings as a map to the local restaurant, for example, but if you look at them you may well have a more “real” understanding of what Arles is like than if you saw a photograph of the area.

So it is – or may be – that the images of heaven as the home to which we return, or the promised land across the Jordan, or the New Jerusalem are offered to us as comfort and solace at a time of loss, or in anticipation of release from a painful and suffering life on Earth. It’s more like stories that a mother tells her frightened child than what an astronomer would report seeing in a telescope.

(Caveat: I am not a fan of the modern tendency to treat the Bible as mere poetry or myth or metaphor, subject to infinitely variable individual human interpretation. I think it usually describes a spiritual reality, but that its descriptions are literally true. So this part of the essay is the kind of thing I’d often criticize. The problem is that this is how I perceive the question of the after life. The inconsistency is acknowledged, if not embraced.)

I still don’t know whether there’s any characteristically Quaker explanation of physical mortality and what, if anything, there is afterwards, but this Quaker thinks about it in two ways.

The first is how Kurt Vonnegut puts it in Studs Terkel’s wonderful book Will the Circle be Unbroken. Vonnegut says that he knows what death is like, and so do you. It’s like going to sleep.

The other comes from years of singing Sacred Harp music, much of which deals with the suffering of this life and the hope of the next, using a rich range of biblical images. Here’s a random sampling:

When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to every fear and wipe my weeping eyes.
I feel like, I feel like, I’m on my journey home. (Saint’s Delight, #114)

Oh, when shall I see Jesus and reign with him above?
And from the flowing fountain drink everlasting love?
Oh had I wings, I would fly away and be at rest.
And I’d praise God in his bright abode. (Ecstasy, #106)

O the transporting, rapturous scene that rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green and rivers of delight. (The Promised Land, #128)

There is a land of pure delight where saints immortal reign.
Infinite day excludes the night and pleasures banish pain. (Greensborough, #289)

And so on.

I turn to Vonnegut’s image most often when I am in my analytical mind and grow too tired to think about it any more and I just want to stop thinking. But when it’s comfort I want, rather than an explanation, I turn to the Sacred Harp.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Once to every soul and nation

Back again after the FGC Gathering. We made it home safely, if tired. We drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Blacksburg to McLean, Virginia, one of the most magnificent drives I’ve ever been on and the perfect segue from FGC to the rest of the world.

The experience, as a whole, and looking backwards, was rich, rewarding, and growth producing, though I had my moments of fatigue and impatience while there. There's a lot I could say about the Gathering, but for now let me talk a little about the workshop I participated in. It turned out to be as rewarding as I had hoped, and was the steady center of the week for me (along with Sacred Harp singing). It was small – just nine participants plus the leader – and she was prepared, flexible, informed, and contagiously passionate about the subject. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Le Chambon and the practice of resistance.

In the workshop, we talked about what happened at Le Chambon and what its story means to Friends, today. There was a sense among the participants that a dark cloud has fallen over our land, a long time coming perhaps, but getting noticeably darker in recent years. For me, a large part of the cloud is the terrorists' war against the West that poses a concrete and growing threat to everyone. But the group expressed more concern with how the current regime, in league with its right-wing fundamentalist base (which in Arabic is pronounced al Quaeda), is using those real threats to justify American military hegemony around the world as well as the depletion of our social capital and the marginalization of (among others) gay and lesbian people.

Without wanting to be overly paranoid or hyperbolic or romantic, we discussed how events in our own time remind us of how fascism grew during the 1920s and '30s. We asked ourselves, "What can we do today, concretely, to resist the regime's growth and prepare for the future?" We discussed how the Chambonais had for several hundred years practicresistancence, often at great cost, and how that had created a community of faith that not only had the desire to do good, but the competence to do so.

We talked about how we today can begin to practice the habit of resistance right now by doing the small, relatively risk-free things while we can – like not standing for God Bless America at the ball game, wearing emblems of solidarity with those under attack, writing letters to the editor, etc. -- we will be prepared when we are asked to do more.

Me speaking now: These small, mundane, non-heroic acts may not have discernibleable effect on the rest of the world, but that's not the reason why we do them. Rather, they help create the habit of faithfulness. It helps build our inner capacity to do things that look heroic to the world, but which have simply become second nature to us. As one of the residents of Le Chambon put it, "We didn't protect the Jews because we were moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do. . . ."

New occasions teach new duties

All of which made attending the witness for marriage equality at the Gathering more meaningful to me than it might otherwise have been. Usually, I’m ambivalent about attending such demonstrations, though I often go anyway. I think they're usually politically ineffective and often counterproductive. I am particulembarrassedassed when the speakers oversimplify the problem and solution aren’t careful with the facts as they try to rally their supporters.

But the witness at the Gathering had a different quality and I was glad I attended. At the beginning, it did seem a bit like the kind of pep rally – it was kind of funny seeing Bruce Birchard as a cheerleader – but by the end of the hour, it felt more like the religious witness it was billed as than a political demonstration. The sense I got was that Friends were demonstrating strength, compassion, love, clarity, and unity to a world that feels helpless, vulnerable, numb, confused, and isolated.

I was especially moved by two moments, one at the beginning and the other at the end. The first was when the high school and middle-school age Friends walked en masse onto the lawn just before the program began. (They apparently changed their field trip schedule in order to attend -- something I didn't know at the time.) The already assembled Friends gave them a hearty cheer and sustained applause as they walked in that moved me to unexpected tears.

The second moment was the last message in the worship. It was given by a woman from Blacksburg who had happened on the witness on her way home from work. She told us in simple, direct, personal terms how important our witness was, not only for her but also for the community as a whole. She reminded me that people like her who live deep in the red states where the dark tide is stronger are the ones who need our prayers and support the most. (She was later seen registering for the Gathering and attending other events.)

In the end, it all felt right.

The anarchist's convention.

I often wish Friends had a more coherent religious testimony, one focused on the Living Christ who has come to teach us himself, etc. And I often feel and express impatience with those who dilute that testimony before they understand it. But at the Gathering -- and especially at the witness -- it felt to me more like the John Sayles' story The Anarchist's Convention, in which the aged anarchists hold their annual banquet and argue with each other over the same points they've been arguing about for 50 years, until the hotel announces that the banquet was set in the wrong room and the convention has to move to a smaller place. Then the anarchists put their differences aside and lock arm-in-arm, singing "We shall not be moved."

That's the way I felt at the witness. While I continue to believe strongly that Friends are shortchanging themselves and the world by their inability to use the powerful language and images and reality of Christianity as expressed by Fox and the early Friends, our actions do, in the end, speak louder than our words, and I felt the covering of God over us that afternoon, and was grateful.