Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I was blind, but now I see. . .

From ministry delivered in Meeting for Worship on 10/23/2005:

We all know the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, where a group of blind men are led to an elephant and each grabs one part of the animal – leg, trunk, tail, body, ear, tusk – and then describes the elephant in terms of the part he is holding – an elephant is like a tree trunk, or like a snake, or rope, wall, banana leaf, spear. Then they argue with each other about it, each insisting on his own perception as the only true description of an elephant.

We smile at the silliness of the argument and usually describe the moral of the story as being about the importance of diverse points of view, no one has all the answers, it’s important to be humble and open to new ideas, etc.

But behind those obvious, superficial lessons, there are two more profound lessons found in the two premises of the story.

First, the only reason that the men disagreed and argued with each other was that they were blind. If they could see they would have each realized in an instant that the elephant had many aspects and characteristics at the same time. The lesson, then, if that if you want to know what an elephant is like, wake up, open your eyes, and see for yourself.

The second, and perhaps more important lesson is that there is indeed an elephant! The story only makes sense if the men are feeling & describing something that actually exists (i.e., they aren’t making it up), and that it is the same thing.

So it is when we stumble in our blindness into an encounter of the Living God. Our first perception may be of a particular characteristic or attribute of God: creator, liberator, comforter, judge, lawgiver, mother, father, shepherd, still small voice, pillar of fire, burning bush, etc.

If we remain spiritually blind, our perception of God will be limited to the aspect we immediately encounter. Somehow we know that we aren't seeing the whole thing, but if we are blind the best we can do would be to listen to and “believe” in the validity of the others' experience, incorporating their second-hand description into our first-hand knowledge and experience. The result would be an "idea" of "God" that would be subjective, ideosyncratic, and tentative. We will never be able to testify with power and confidence about God and what God has done for us; we'd always have to qualify our testimony on the reliability of the other witnesses. (How could the blind guy feeling the leg ever accept without reservation that the animal he was feeling had any resemblance whatsoever to a rope or a banana leaf?)

But if we learn how to see, our knowledge will be immediate, personal, comprehensive, and authentic. It would be a living knowledge of The Living God upon which we could stake our lives. And not alone: we'd share the knowledge with all the others who also see (i.e., the Church).

There is one important difference, though. The elephant is indifferent towards her perceivers; she doesn’t have the power, or desire, to cure them of their blindness. So they are stuck in their prediciment and must do the best they can.

Not so with the Living God.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Stay home, young Friend; stay home.

I ran across this advice from The Old Discipline of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (1806) and thought that, while quaint and tied to a particular time and place, the advice nevertheless has a great deal of wisdom for us in it.

Friends are advised to be very cautious in changing their
places of residence: it having been observed that the dissolving
of old, and the forming of new connections, have in many instances
been attended with effects prejudicial to a growth in the truth
and the service thereof, both in the heads and younger branches
of families; we therefore recommend to all, that on these
occasions a strict attention be paid to the pointings of Divine
Wisdom; and that before any determine to change their places
of abode, they consult with their experienced fellow members.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why sometimes I wish we had cable.

So I could hear lines like this:

"If you have ever sat naked on a hotel bedspread, we have a chilling report you won't want to miss."

"Thankfully, alert gauchos were able to save the llama before it was swept into the blades of the turbine."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Why War is not the Answer

Through the Street Corner Society blog, I found a fascinating analysis of the Friends Peace Testimony by someone identifying herself as "Neo-neo-con". She responded to a banner on a Friends meetinghouse that says "War is not the Answer."

Her analysis is quite good, I think, especially where she notes the inconsistency with which Friends have observed their Peace Testimony, though there are obvious points of disagreement.

Here is a comment I left for her, slightly edited. My only hesitation in posting it is that it might sound presumptuous for me to appear to be speaking for all Friends. I just didn't want to lard it up with qualifications. For now, it'll have to be enough that I realize it might be presumptuous and apologize in advance:

As a Friend, if I had to sum up our Peace Testimony, I would say it is our willingness to accept suffering ourselves rather than to inflict it on others. It is the example Jesus set for us.

That suffering may include enduring imprisonment and even death even though innocent of any crime, or living under an oppressive conditions as Friends did when they patiently endured severe corporeal and economic punishments rather than enlist in the army, pay war taxes, drill with the militia, be conscripted, pay a substitute, etc. While Friends used peaceful, political methods to partially mitigate their suffering (e.g., obtaining legal exemption of conscious objectors from conscription), they nevertheless accepted suffering themselves rather than to inflict it on others.

Is it realistic to expect everyone to accept such suffering? Friends do not necessarily expect everyone to share our scruples in this regard. We therefore do not condemn individuals who defend themselves with violence when necessary, or Friends who have kept our Peace Testimony inconsistently. Neither do we necessarily condemn a state that does so, even if we cannot personally participate in such conduct, if the purpose is just, the means are lawful, and innocent blood is not shed. (These qualifications make most modern wars inherently unjust.) We don't say that waging war to defend oneself is always wicked, but that there is always a more excellent way.

Rather, we have learned from direct experience -- individually and corporately -- that by listening to and heeding the Inner Light (known by some as Jesus the Christ), human beings can live in a world full of injustice and violence without becoming, as Camus said, either victim or executioner. As President Bush has said, Christ can change your heart.

Thus, when we say "War is not the Answer", we mean that it is not the answer to any evil, whether characterized as terrorism, poverty, injustice, or war itself. We mean that war always obscures and interferes with the ability of human beings -- whether aggressor, defender, or innocent victim -- to hear the true Answer and therefore does not truly solve the problem. So not only does our religious experience prevent us from personally participating in war, our love for others requires us to testify that war is not the solution to their problems (and to point them to the Prince of Peace who is).

This kind of understanding is obviously at odds with the a-theistic, secular world view that predominates the world today, a world view that denies any supernatural or eternal moral reality, that relies on human reason and technique to solve problems such as war and evil. Such a world view sees religion -- and human beings -- merely as a tool to achieve certain ends rather than as an end in itself. The efforts of Osama bin Laden and George Bush to use religious language and symbols to sanctify the war they wage against other is blasphemous as a matter of religion, though entirely logical from a secular point of view.

Even so, we have not been called to disengage from the World, to throw up our hands and say "You'll never understand until you've been converted." We are a practical people and have worked tirelessly to improve the concrete day-to-day conditions of human beings -- from ministering impartially to the victims of war to abolishing slavery to achieving the political equality of men and women. We believe things can be better even if they cannot yet be perfect.

Regarding war, we make concrete political proposals that we believe, in good faith, will reduce the suffering that war has produced and prevent further suffering. Here is one such practical proposal on how to more effectively protect the innocent from terrorism.

We are engaged in the political conversation, but our Peace Testimony is not rooted in politics and cannot ultimately be judged in political terms (or, I should say, we would not accept any judgment of it that made in solely political terms).

The questions we ask ourselves continually, the answers for which we hold ourselves responsible, are: "Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Do you search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war? Do you stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remembering that they too are children of God? Do you endeavor to live in virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars?" With Divine Assistance, I pray our our answer will always be "yes."

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

I'm sorry I missed this wedding (but I'm glad it wasn't mine)

I don't know whether it's coincidence, synchronicity, or what, but I've been stumbling over descriptions of weddings recently. Here's one that particularly caught my eye. Maybe it was the first line: "The first time I was married, I was married to over 200 naked people." You just know that whatever follows that is going to be interesting.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

The Army is lowering its recruiting standards in order to be able to enlist high school drop-outs, says this story.

As Malvina Reynolds used to sing (and I sing today), "They've got the world in their pocket, but their pocket's got a hole."

In the presence of God and these Friends . . .

On Saturday, Only Son and I and our friend Elizabeth drove 2 1/2 hours south of the Twin Cities to Lanesboro for the wedding of Faith & Joel, a young couple in our meeting on whose marriage clearness committee I've had the honor of serving. It was the clearest I've ever been that the couple is made for each other and it was such a delight to work with them.

There had been some unhappiness that our meeting's committee on ministry and counsel was unable to unite to approve the couple marrying under the care of the meeting. There were a number of reasons, not all of which related directly to this couple, and they included a concern that neither had yet become a formal member of the meeting and that the wedding was planned so far away from St. Paul that the wedding couldn't be fairly characterized as a meeting for worship of Twin Cities Friends Meeting.

M&C's inability to unite on the question, despite a strong recommendation from the clearness committee that had considered these and other possible impediments at length and in detail was disappointing to us all, though without rancor; the M&C members' concerns were legitimate ones to raise, but I thought that the clearness committee had adequately addressed them, but alas not.

Thankfully, M&C did approve the clearness committee assisting the couple in arranging the wedding to be held after the manner of Friends, and it was. It was held outdoors, in the city park, under a canopy of shade trees and next to a small pond with a fountain. Of the 200+ people who attended, about 30 were Quakers.

The clearness committee sat behind the couple, facing the meeting, and from the clerk's welcome and introduction on, it was a deeply settled and weighty meeting. The couple walked into the meeting hand-in-hand, being led by the groom's cousin who played Simple Gifts on the violin as their wedding march. Bless their hearts, they sat for about a half-hour before rising to make their promises, an uncommonly long time in my experience, but entirely satisfying.

Their promises were spoken as deliberately and sincerely as if they were vocal ministry in a meeting for worship, which, of course, it was. To my delight, they used the traditional, elegant Quaker vows with only slight modifications ("I take thee to be my life's companion, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful marriage partner. . ."). As they were speaking, the Lutheran church on the hill above the park began ringing its bells as it does on-the-hour. (Fortunately, as Only Son pointed out, it didn't ring God Bless America as it had done at the 2 o'clock hour.)

The ministry that followed was similarly simple and powerful. The groom's father, mother, and brother each spoke simply and lovingly, as did the bride's father who was overcome by emotion as he expressed his appreciation of the day. A member of the clearness committee and several other friends of the couple also spoke, each one deepening the presence of Holy Love over the meeting.

Afterwards, there was lefse and sparkling apple wine as guests signed the certificate and greeted the couple, then a fine dinner and dance. I enjoyed eating with other Friends from my meeting, and a couple we didn't know. It turns out that the male half of the couple, a teacher at the college the couple attended, graduated from the same college I did, during the 7 year hiatus I took between finishing my junior and starting my senior year, but while I still lived in the town, and we enjoyed talking about that connection.

The dance that followed dinner was a gas. The caller was gifted, starting with very simple contra or circle dance figures (too simple for the real dancers in the crowd), and slowly progressed to more complex, but still simple, dances that were more satisfying. I've never seen a caller more skillful at bringing the group along. Even Only Son (14), who is a little shy about public displays like this, was easily drawn into the dancing and had a wide smile the whole time. My gratitude to the women Friends who brought him out. (He cracked me up at dinner when we were talking about whether he would dance or not. He said, "Well, the problem is that the woman here who's closest to my age to dance with just got married.")

Just after dinner, Elizabeth and I took a walk. She is still deep in grief over the death of Lou Ann, her partner of more than 25 years, and that fact combined with her natural introversion makes large public gatherings like this a challenge -- at some point she runs against a wall and feels overwhelmed. When she reached that point soon after dinner was done, we went outside into the cool evening and walked for an hour or so which relieved the tension quite a bit.

We have been friends for more than ten years, and we got to know each other much better last winter when we co-taught Quakerism 101 with our meeting. (She learned of Lou Ann's cancer a few days after our last class.) We worked closely and well in preparing and presenting that class, and I learned so much from her in doing it. She is someone I have always looked up to as sensible, wise, astute, insightful, and strong woman and it is hard to see her in such pain and vulnerability. It felt good to be able to give her a bit of uninterrupted attention. We also had great talks in the car on the way down and back.

A number of Friends camped out Saturday night (Only Son and I went to bed after one of the guests performed an amazing flame-eating fire-show in the parking lot -- no kidding) and on Sunday met for coffee & then a whole gang of 20 guests or more -- including the bride & groom with highly decorated "Just Married" bicycles -- rode bikes on the Root River Trail to Whalen where we ate "world famous" pie. A smaller group of us rode about 20 miles, all told, through a beautiful landscape that varied from wooded riverbank to wide-open wheat or oat fields. It felt really good to have worked with this couple on their wedding; they certainly did their part in providing wonderfully graceful hospitality to many guests, and I feel good that we did our part as a clearness & arrangements committee to have overseen as genine a Friends meeting for marriage as I've ever been to.

The cost of war

On Friday, Only Son and I volunteered at the Eyes Wide Open exhibit that was at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. The exhibit, created and sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee displays a pair of combat boots for each American military death in Iraq. They are organized by state. Each is labeled with the name, rank, home state, and age of the person killed. There is an accompanying exhibit of civilian shoes, of uncertain number, symbolically depicting Iraqis killed in the conflict.

We had witnessed it at Friends General Conference Gathering at Virginia Tech University earlier this summer when the number of combat boots was a little more than 1550. There were more than 1900 pair this past Friday, a mere three months later.

In Virginia, the boots were displayed in the mess hall of the corps of cadets, a large, sterile, featureless room except for the military ball banners that were displayed high on the walls on two sides. The room was too small for the display which completely filled it wall-to-wall, and the boots for those from Virginia and West Virginia had to be moved outside in front of the building, as well as those for the half dozen or so alumni of Virginia Tech who had been killed to make room.

At St. Kate's, though, the boots were set out on a broad, spacious expanse of lawn which made it feel a little like a cemetery. The day was as glorious as an autumn day gets in Minnesota -- bright sun, blue sky, cooling breeze from the west. There was a steady attendance on the Friday we worked.

I was assigned to work at the booth selling t-shirts, books, and other exhibit-related merchandise; Only Son handed out programs to those who came to visit. I must admit mixed feelings about the t-shirt deal -- it felt a bit commercial and degrading with $20 changing hands in exchange for a shirt, even though it was for the good cause of supporting the exhibit as it travels through the country. However, it was an honor to meet and talk with some of those who came to the booth -- parents of active duty soldiers now in Iraq; El Salvador, Gulf War I, and Vietnam veterans; hard of hearing or deaf students with their teachers who had to interrupt the flow of their sign language with dabs of the tissue to wipe away the tears.

Given the disappointment I have expressed over most mass peace demonstrations I've seen or participated in, I was pleased that this one that had a gravity to it, a clear message that needed no interpretation. It was a genuine demonstration of the cost of war to which we are asked to view with eyes wide open; no need to open our mouth. No strident speeches. No chanting or sign waving. Just slow strolls through the ranks, looking at the personalized photos, letters home, and other memorabilia of the person. If you view the exhibit as a glorious tribute to heroes fallen in a noble cause, so be it. At least you've come to that conclusion with some measure of appreciation of the cost. This is the kind of thing that Quakers, uniquely, can do to help make peace, and I am proud (if that's the word) that they (we) have done so.

My most haunting memory from the exhibit: A letter from a soldier to his parents explaining that he was enlisting in the army because America needed more Christian soldiers. What blasphemy. Who is responsible for the false doctrine that was taught to that now dead teenager?