Friday, September 18, 2009

Five rules of the world; or, Show up for your life and don't be ashamed

I recently got involved with Facebook, for a lot of reasons, which has kept me away from here. One of the reasons is Facebook's encouragement of short, quick pieces. But here's an excerpt from Anne Lamotte's wonderful little book, Operating Instructions that was too long for a status update. The book is essentially a journal of the first year of her life as a mother to her son, Sam. I liked it very much, and it's so typical of Lamotte's wonderful writing. (I've loved hearing her on the radio for years, but have begun to read her only in the last few weeks.)

It's a short chapter dated November 4, and is on page 100:
I had a session over the phone with my therapist today. I have these secret pangs of shame about being single, like I wasn't good enough to get a husband. Rita reminded me of something I'd told her once, about the five rules of the world as arrived at by this Catholic priest named Tm Weston. The first rule, he says, is that you must not have anything wrong with you or different. The second one is that if you do have something wrong with you, you must get over it as soon as possible. The third rule is that if you can't get over it, you must pretend that you have. The fourth rule is that if you can't even pretend that you have, you shouldn't show up. You should stay home, because it's hard for everyone else to have you around. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.
So Rita and I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Let the time of joy return

July 5, 2009. I am near Indianapolis at Lovely Wife’s brother’s family’s home, relaxing on a beautiful screened in back porch amidst green trees and grass and the songs of hundreds of birds and a few stray Fourth of July firecrackers. We arrived last evening from Blacksburg, Virginia and the Friends General Conference Gathering.

At the Gathering, mostly I sung. I co-led an almost-three house workshop, Singing from the Sacred Harp, six mornings (one day was shorter), led an hour of singing from Rise Up Singing immediately afterwards, and coordinated and participated in a two-hour Sacred Harp singing Sunday-Friday afternoons. It was like heaven must be like.

The workshop went extraordinarily well. It is the fifth time I’ve co-led it, the first time with Gerry. We worked well together and are both very satisfied with how it went.

We had high hopes when we got the preliminary roster showing 43 registered participants, half men, half women. A dozen were of high school or college age young Friends (including four from our own meeting), and six other singers who had taken the workshop before. This gave us a solid core of experienced singers to help along the newer singers, always an advantage in a singing school.

There were some additions and subtractions, but on first session on Sunday morning the class pretty closely resembled the preliminary roster. From the very first song, we knew we had a solid group of singers. It turned out that most of the younger Friends were already singers with high school or college choir experience and they picked up the rudiments of shape note singing easily. We could have dispensed with teaching the parts of new songs by the end of the Monday morning, though we continued to sing the parts separately most of the time until Thursday. We kept having new participants drop in throughout the week, which also contributed to the quality of the experience.

The workshop was complemented by a very strong afternoon singing. For the fourth year in a row, we were provided a beautiful place to sing outdoors – under a wide cantilevered overhang of the dining hall. It wasn’t a low-ceilinged pine church, but it was resonant and we didn't have to strain our voices to be heard. We ordered 30 chairs originally but had to add 15 more by Monday afternoon to accommodate everyone who wanted to sing. (When the second group of chairs was delivered, we found all 45 of them set up in one giant hallow square – just as the workers thought they had been instructed.) Thankfully, singing Friends from Madison, Wisconsin and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, brought additional books to share with the ones I brought from the Twin Cities; without those extra books to loan, we would have lost many singers.

Although we missed the high school singers from the workshop during the afternoon singing (they were obliged to be elsewhere), we did draw many of the college age Friends from the workshop, some other adult singers from the workshop, and most importantly other experienced singers who were able to start the week strong and keep the singing at a very high level of quality. I have been very pleased with the growth of the size and quality of the afternoon singings over the past four or five years, and this year was even better. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a large group also spontaneously showed up to worship and sing during the Wednesday afternoon sabbatical time when no organized activities were permitted. It was a pleasant coincidence.

Then came the extraordinary Thursday. In the workshop in the morning, we held a memorial lesson for Friends who had died or who were sick and shut-in and unable to be with us. This is a Sacred Harp tradition that we adapted to our Quaker setting by adding a lengthy time of silent, settled worship as well as reading the names and singing a song. It was, as it always is, a poignant and moving time.

We repeated this in the afternoon, with other names being said aloud and remembered by loved ones. Many of the names added in the afternoon were of people who had died prematurely, before what we would normally think of their time. I was led to lead the song Morning Sun (#436) which speaks to this tragic phenomenon:

Youth, like the spring, will soon be gone,
By fleeting time or conq'ring death;
Your morning sun may set at noon,
And leave you ever in the dark.

Your sparkling eyes and blooming cheeks
Must wither like the blasted rose;
The coffin earth and winding sheet
Will soon your active limb enclose.

Usually, this song is sung very quickly and energetically, and often with a strong feeling of black humor. But this time I led it very slowly and beat it with four beats to the measure, giving it a more stately feel. I also lead the song Poland (# 86) for the sick and shut-in:

God of my life, look gently down,
Behold the pains I feel,
But I am dumb before Thy throne,
Nor dare dispute Thy will.

I'm but a sojourner below,
As all my fathers were;
May I be well prepared to go
When I the summons hear.

But if my life be spared awhile,
Before my last remove,
Thy praise shall be my bus'ness still
And I'll declare thy love.

When these songs were done, we sat in traditional Quaker silent worship for a few minutes. While we were doing so, we listened to the background noise around us. Construction work across the street. Children squealing and laughing as they played down the walk. The easy laughter of Friends as they walked by, having a conversation. Sirens hurrying to the scene of an emergency.

Later that evening, I attended the Gathering’s third plenary program. The program began with a report from a Friend about a young man attending the Gathering who had fallen from a skateboard earlier that day and suffered a serious blow to his head; we had heard only that during our afternoon memorial lesson, and the speaker gave us his name and an update on his condition, which was guarded. He was not out of the woods and there was a strong sense of hopefulness for his recovery.

The speaker then began her program. It was the only one of the four plenary speakers during the week with whom I did not connect and so was relieved when she sat down at the end of her talk and was ready to leave.

But then a long line of Friends, most of whom I recognized as being part of the senior leadership of FGC and of the Gathering came to the stage and the general secretary stepped to the microphone. He then said words that must be among the most difficult he has or ever will have to say to others. He announced very simply and directly that Bonnie Tinker, a well-known and loved Friends from Portland, Oregon, had died that afternoon after having a collision with a vehicle while she was riding her bicycle.

There was an audible gasp from the assembly of a thousand or more. Then a lengthy time of stunned silence, punctuated by weeping and other sounds of emotion all around the hall. Lovely Wife took my hand and squeezed hard for some time. She had been a friend of Bonnie’s family for many years, and we both had worked briefly with her many years ago on an AFSC program. We knew her to be a remarkable woman of tremendous bravery, integrity, compassion, and promise. Her loss, in this sudden and unexpected way cut right through us.

After a time, additional announcements were made. All evening events cancelled except for a meeting for worship sponsored by Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual and Queer Concerns, a community of which Bonnie was a leading member. Workshops would reconvene in the morning and leaders would decide how to proceed. Persons trained in Compassionate Listening would convene in the front of the hall, etc.

L.W. and I just sat there for ten or fifteen minutes, trying to come to grips with what we had just heard. Then I said to her, “All I can think of is to sing.” So we got a box of books and walked to the place where we did our afternoon singing, joined by a few others who we found on the way. On the way, we learned that the sirens we had heard during the memorial lesson that afternoon were those called to help Bonnie. In the end, there was about a dozen of us, and we began singing (uncharacteristically) quietly, given the circumstances and time of night, which gave the music a whole different quality. We aren’t used to exercising any restraint when we sing, and gradually I believe we came more into full voice. We sang an hour or so before we felt free to stop and go home.

I don’t remember all the songs we sang that night, but I do remember reprising the song Linda had called in the afternoon when I said I wished I had chosen a more hopeful song than Morning Sun.
She led Gainsville (#70t), verses 1, 5 and 6, and we sang it again that night.

Lord, we come before Thee now,
At Thy feet we humbly bow;
Oh do not our suit disdain;
Shall we seek Thee, Lord, in vain?

Comfort those who weep and mourn;
Let the time of joy return;
Those who are cast down lift up,
Strong in faith, in love and hope.

Grant that all may seek and find
Thee a God supremely kind;
Heal the sick, the captive free,
Let us all rejoice in Thee.

It is a strange thing in some ways to be so involved with Sacred Harp singing at a Quaker gathering. After all, it is difficult to think of anything that could be more different than traditional Quaker worship. We are not quiet; we are not still; we make noise, joyful and otherwise; we weep without shame and we laugh heartily and often; we probably refer to more biblical stories, verses, and themes in one afternoon than most FGC Friends do in an entire year of weekly worship

But I do not see this as contradictory. When the reality of life and death breaks through to touch me personally, I feel as if I have only two possible responses. The first, and most natural, is silent acceptance and contemplation, letting the reality of it all sink in without the aid or hindrance of words. I seldom feel that there is anything I can say under such circumstances that help me or anyone else. So I respond by simply being there, sitting quietly and attentively.

The other response is to sing. Mark Twain once remarked that “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” I find the same is true of singing. Under urgent, desperate circumstances I find that singing – especially from the Sacred Harp but also from other sources – gives me an emotional relief and connection to others that I do not ordinarily find in silent worship. I certainly felt this last Thursday night under the porch at Deitz Dining Hall.

The next morning, we set aside the first hour of our workshop for open worship after the manner of Friends. One participant shared the conversation she had had with Bonnie at lunchtime a few hours before she was killed. Another shared that it was appropriate that the reason Bonnie had rented a bike to ride during the Gathering was to continue her training for a long ride down the West Coast she was planning to raise awareness and funds for gay and lesbian families. Another asked the young people to sing the song he had heard them singing around the table at breakfast that morning – Mear, (#49b), a versification of Psalm 47’s lamentation. We sang these verses:

Will God forever cast us off?
His wrath forever smoke
Against the people of his love,
His little chosen flock?

And still to heighten our distress,
Thy presence is withdrawn;
Thy wonted signs of pow'r and grace
Thy pow'r and grace are gone.

No prophet speaks to calm our grief,
But all in silence mourn;
Nor know the hour of our relief,
The hour of Thy return.

After about an hour, we took a break and continued on the last day of he workshop, trying to wind things up and get in some last-minute lessons we had not had time to get to during the week.

Near the end, the general secretary came into the room and said that a television news crew was on campus reporting the story of Bonnie’s death and wanted to film a workshop in action as background footage for the story. He asked if we would be willing to be filmed; he said it would be more compelling than showing a bunch of people sitting around a circle talking. We agreed and the TV people came in and did their thing as we sang our final songs. A few minutes later, another crew came by and we again were filmed. You can see one of the stories here. (Thanks to Jeanne for forwarding this link.)

I am grateful to God for so many, many things, but after this week I am thankful for nothing so much as the ability to feel gratitude and for a voice with which to express it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Palm Sunday meditation

From ministry given on 4-5-2009, North Meadow Friends Meeting, Indianapolis

Many years ago, I discovered Jesus and welcomed him into my life like a king. He was going to extricate me from a dead-letter childhood religion. He was going to give me ammunition to fight against an oppressive and regressive government and social system.

So I hailed his entry into my life with joy and elation. I carried and read from the little red book, Quotations of Chairman Jesus and quoted them to every overly cautious adult I could find. I even grew a beard and long hair and wore sandels to look like him. I was supported in my commitment by the fact that there were others who shared my point of view. It just made so much sense to me, and I took pleasure in kidnapping Jesus from the establishment that claimed to speak for him.

But after a while, things began to go wrong. As I ushered him into the temple of my heart, instead of reinforcing me in the reasons I asked him in, he began to point out that it -- that is to say, me -- was full of lies and lust. I was not what I pretended it was. And he didn’t just point out the discrepancy he brought out a whip and demanded that either the lies go, or he goes. But the hypocrites he chased out were old friends of mine, and I literally couldn't imagine being without them. So I began to hate him and plot what any Self-respecting person would do.

It did not take me long to neutralize him, as the military would say. It was surprisingly easy, actually. All I had to do was turn him from the powerful, Self-disturbing force I discovered he was into a mere teacher, prophet, philosopher, and a good example. I made him two-dimensional, like a cartoon figure, not a living being. In truth, I basically admitted what I had always thought about him, but without the pretense of his being anything more. So I wrung all the life out of him and buried him in the same stone sepulcher with the rest of them. In a honored place, at first, but what does it matter whose urn is on the upper shelf?

And I went on with my life.

But then something began to happen. Doubts arose. Was I certain he was nothing more than a good teacher or moral example? Was it possible that he was of a unique character? Perhaps even who he said he was? I no longer thought so, but I wasn't as certain as I once was.

Then I heard about a group of people who testified that they had actually found this dead prophet alive again. They reported that as they met together regularly to wait for him, he appeared to them in spirit and in truth -- simply, directly and unmediated by a priest or scholar. And that as they listened to him, they began to align their lives with his. There was something about their witness that was particularly convincing: it was not merely the testimony of their mouth, but of their lives that brought me to believe that they had, in fact, seen a Living Christ, and not the dead Jesus that I had killed so long ago.

And so I began to wait with them, and have been for more than 30 years now. I don't think I realized it at first -- in fact, hardly anyone in the group spoke in such terms at all -- but gradually I discovered that waiting for him -- and then listening to him -- was exactly what they were doing. While I can’t say that I’ve ever had as dramatic experience as the first-generation apostles as described by Luke, over the years I’ve had enough glimpses of the Living Christ’s presence in the midst of the waiting community that I have kept coming to wait with them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Maybe this land was made for you and me after all

I have pretty successfully fought off Obama-fever for the past two years. He was my second choice early on, then my first, but I had not felt the thrill running up my leg like Chris Matthews did. Seeing him on television or hearing him on the radio, I found myself saying, "Yes, that's right" and agreeing with most of what he said, but it was more like watching a comedy movie and saying, "That was funny" rather than laughing out loud. Though I approved, I hadn't connected emotionally with him or his campaign, even on election night.

But it got me today. Lovely Wife and I listened to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio and then drove out to Costco (of all places) because we needed a pallet of pasta, a barrel of olive oil, or a side of beef or something. We enjoyed the music, but some of the readings seemed a little melodramatic and some of the music too show-bizzy for our tastes. Obama's speech was a good one, though, when it ended as we exited I-394 near the store.

Then Bruce Springsteen came on for the closing number and as he was talking we heard one unmistakable twang of a banjo and immediately knew that he was introducing Pete Seeger. (Isn't it funny how some musicians you can recognize after a single note?)

We'd heard Pete was attending the concert, but knowing that his voice is nearly gone we weren't sure he'd be performing. But then Bruce introduced him. (What did he call him? The grandfather? godfather? Father of American folk music?) and Pete rasped, "I'll say the words and you sing 'em" and then started, "As I was walking that ribbon of highway. . . ."

That's when the tears came.

Pete Seeger, 89 years old, who I first heard about when some right-wing Lutherans tried to keep him from singing at a Walther League convention in 1964 or so, who I first heard live at the Capitol in May 1971 singing Last Train to Nuremberg, who was blacklisted from radio and television but who nevertheless taught a generation -- nay, three or four generations -- to sing, song by song, campus by campus, demonstration by demonstration, during times of deep political and social darkness now singing with his grandson and a children's chorus and a half-million people at the inauguration of the President of the United States. We were just stunned with joy.

But what topped it off was that he didn't just sing the familiar four verses of This Land is Your Land that we all learned in grade school. He actually skipped a couple of those but did sing two verses Woody wrote that weren't printed in the school song books because they added a bit of social criticism to his otherwise safely patriotic song:

In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
Near the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistlin',*
This land was made for you and me.

A great high wall there tried to stop me.
A great big sign there said "Private Property."*
On the other side, it didn't say nothin'.
That side was made for you and me
* As sung. Woody's published lines are a little different.

That's when I really lost it and just sat there and wept. In the Costco parking lot, for heaven's sake. I felt gratitude for Pete Seeger -- and many others like him -- who for years were plugging away, little by little, sometimes with little to show for it, but persevering in spite of it all. God Bless the Grass indeed.

I finally felt, for the first time, really, some measure of hope for this country. Not because Barak Obama is any kind of all-wise and powerful superman who will make everything all right, but because the nation that managed to elect him as its president has some redeeming virtue left in it after all. As he said during the campaign, it wasn't about him, it was about us. I felt like calling to volunteer.

UPDATE: Thanks to Peggy & Songbird and finally figuring how how to embed a You-Tube file, here's Pete and Tao and Bruce and their fellow countrymen.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A faith of power or cheap moralism?

I just learned that Richard John Neuhaus died through this story in by Michael Sean Winters. (NPR reported the story as I am typing this.)

I didn't know Neuhaus well, but followed his career at a distance from when he was a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn and helped found what was then called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam in 1966 or '67. An African-American friend of mine from college days adored him and she credited him with making sure that she went to college.

He was not a conventional liberal, however. He was a Christian, first and foremost, and he gradually found a more congenial home on the political right, and eventually in the Roman Catholic Church. His New York Times obituary is here and more comprehensive and much more sympathetic information is here.

What struck me was the following paragraph from the story. I think it summaries my concerns about why the radical secularization of much of contemporary liberal Quakerism has weakened the power of our social testimonies. (The emphasis is mine.)

When religion is reduced to ethics, the church is permitted to enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority. But once you sever the link between the central animating dogmas of faith and the moral teachings that flow from there, you invite a cheap moralism, a religion of external conformity to prescribed norms rather than an internal assent of faith. You are a Christian if you believe certain things about events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is that belief that has inspired believers and generated culture. Just last September, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christianity "is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ."
I've long thought that the message that Quakers have been given to proclaim isn't that war is bad or that you should tell the truth no matter what or that you should not live ostentatiously. I think most everyone knows this already, and it is indeed cheap moralism for us to add to the scolding. What people don't know is how to live this way, how to find the courage to accept the suffering that comes from, for example, being conquered by an enemy rather than resisting with violence.

The unique contribution of the Quakers was to show the same God who shows the way to live and how I fall short of that way also offers me the power to follow that more excellent path; I am not inherently doomed to falling short of the goal as was the central premise of the protestant churches in England.

Whether or not Neuhaus was right or wrong about politics in the latter half of his life, I am certain that he was on the right track in insisting that the religious commitment precedes and informs everything else.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hello babies. Welcome to earth. . .

It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you have about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of– God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind.-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in God Bless you Mr. Rosewater or Pearls before Swine.

So here they are, Edward (Teddy) Louis & Quinn John, born Saturday, January 3, 2009, in New York, not too far from where the author of this quote lived in mid-Manhattan. They, and their beloved mother and their worthy-of-her father are doing well, considering. They hope to go home to their fourth-floor walkup (!) in Brooklyn on Wednesday morning. Their uncommonly youthful grandfather will visit them in mid-February after a board meeting in Philadelphia. He can hardly wait

We were visiting Lovely Wife's family in Indianapolis when the word came -- via text message from their dad a lá Obama at 6 am that only Only Son could receive since we're too cheap to accept text messages -- on Saturday when we were leaving to visit daughter #2 in Dearborn, MI. On the way there, we discovered that Dearborn is closer to New York than it is to Minneapolis, and for several exciting hours we considered driving to New York the next day (Sunday) to see the two little lads.

But alas, saner and much less romantic heads prevailed ("What would we do without them?" our clerk asks) and we drove home on Sunday.

On the way home, we almost collided with a van that sped past our car in the early-morning darkness east of Jackson and began to fishtail on the glare ice on the roadway and then spin two or three 360s in front of us before it plunged off the side of the road into a ditch. All I could do was take my foot off the gas and plan for a diversionary maneuver if necessary, which it fortunately wasn't. We were shaken, to say the least, but otherwise undamaged, other than re-running the mental tape repeatedly.

* * * * *

So much more has been happening here than I can say. In October, I was happy to share a dinner and conversation with Brooklyn Quaker while in New York visiting my daughter. The day I returned home, I was notified (not unexpectedly) that my position was going to be eliminated on Dec. 1 and I have been enjoying a paid sabbatical ever since. The paid part will continue for a few months while I try to find new work, for which I am grateful.

I'm working at finding new remunerative employment, but I feel a little like St Augustine who said, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." I'm already as chaste and as self-restrained as I care to be, but I would like a little more time before I must abandon sloth . . . . *

* I happily note that none of the seven cardinal virtues -- humility, liberality, brotherly love, meekness, chastity, temperance, and diligence -- necessarily includes anything like toil or ambition. Whew.