Great and Small

(As I expect we will have some new readers shortly, this is both a new post and a guide to some of my recent thinking. Most of the links connect to earlier posts I’ve made.)

It’s quiet in my apartment this week. My partner Adrian is gone on work business, and it’s the first time we’ve been separated since we moved in together, so the daily rhythm that we’d begun to get accustomed to is suddenly gone. I’m not alone in the place, however; our cat, Hannah, is with me. Hannah is a tiny cat—in fact, her official nickname here is “Small One.”

I decided to take advantage of the quiet, and of Adrian’s library, by doing some reading and then some meditation. I picked up a book on alternatives to capitalism, a topic much in my mind of late. The theme dominated my thoughts as I tried to balance on my exercise ball and enter meditation.

I put the query out to the Spirit: “What would you want the economy to look like?”

And the Spirit answered, quite promptly: “Listen, and I’ll tell you.” So I listened. And the Spirit said:

“The great take care of the small.”

Ah, I thought. That makes sense—those with the greatest resources should take care of those with the least. Very Biblical, really. But how is that to be enforced? After all, there are many mechanisms in today’s society where the powerful and wealthy are supposed to look after the weak and poor, but too often they don’t seem to be doing it, or seem to do it so selectively that it’s not generally helpful for most people.

As I pondered this, a plaintive noise intruded on my thoughts. I looked down and saw the cat, trying to climb up into my lap. But since I was sitting on the exercise ball, I didn’t really have a lap, and Hannah was mewing with dismay. Oh, right, I realized. The great take care of the small. And here was the Small One, asking for some help. So I moved to the couch to generate a lap for her.

At first she decided she didn’t want it, after all, and roamed about the apartment for a bit—but before long she came back over and settled down, purring up a storm as we helped keep each other warm. Then the second piece of the lesson fell into place. “The great take care of the small” isn’t just an instruction—it’s a definition. If you don’t take care of others, you’re not great. Simple as that.

Which reminded me of many things: the idea of asking and giving rather than buying and selling; my thoughts on heaven and hell; how you get into heaven, according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; the laborers in the vineyard; and the story, probably apocryphal but still containing much truth, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to recite the whole of Hebrew Law while standing on one foot. Hillel promptly stood on one foot, recited “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), put his foot down, and said, “The rest is commentary.”

What should the economy look like, according to the Holy Spirit? One where people take care of each other. The rest is less critical.

Options, Part Two

One of my more common failings, friends, is getting something started and then forgetting to finish it. And such was the case with this. My apologies for the delay in posting part two of this essay. Part One can be found here—or, if you’re looking at this on the main screen, just scroll down.

Now to the communal options! I’ll list these in ascending order of audacity. Continue reading

Options, Part One

A Friend came to the Spirit and asked, “Spirit, how may I achieve perfect peace?”

The Spirit said, “Follow the testimonies, follow my leadings, subscribe to Friends Journal, and love your neighbors as yourself.”

The Friend said, “I have done all of that for years.”

Then there is one more thing to do,” the Spirit said.

Tell me.”

Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend waited expectantly, and, after a few minutes, said, “Please, Spirit. What is the one thing I have to do?”

The Spirit said, “I just told you. Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend was becoming agitated. “Spirit, why won’t you answer me? I’m listening.”

Sell. Everything. Give. The money. To. The poor. …Is this thing on?”

The Friend was by now distraught, and wandered away wailing, “Spirit, where are you? I feel so lost; I cannot find the Light! I don’t know what to do…”

(Later…)

And that’s how the Quakers died out?”

Of course. They had exactly one thing going for them: listening to Me. Have you seen their business meetings? They never would have survived so long if I hadn’t been helping out. When they stopped hearing Me they were doomed. But money talks louder than I do… and fear talks louder still.”

~~~

Or…

We could do something different. Continue reading

Mysterious Ways

This has been a year of lessons for me. They have often been painful; they have always been powerful. So this one is going deep, folks.

Still here? All right, then.

The first lesson came from a debate on Facebook. I don’t get in debates on the Internet, but until recently I made an exception for friends, with the higher level of respect. One incident this spring, however, proved me wrong. The debate was on Catholicism and sex, so I was asking for trouble from the start. The limitations of the Facebook medium swiftly became apparent when the person on the other side of the debate misunderstood one of my points entirely, and launched onto a line of argument countering something she thought I had said, rather than what I’d meant. I thought of Woody Allen’s story “The Gossage-Vardabedian Papers,” in which a chess-by-mail match gradually turns into two entirely different games. Miscommunication aside, both my opponents and I were making good points, and I still feel mine are correct. However, as the argument grew more heated—and divergent—I apologized to my opponents and conceded defeat. Continue reading

“Ten Thousand Hours”

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint,
The greats were great because they paint a lot.”

—Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours”

Some of you know Macklemore because of “Thrift Shop.” Some know him because of “Same Love,” his ballad in support of gay marriage. I fell in love with his work some years ago when I encountered his early song “White Privilege.” In the quote above, he’s not saying anything new—the title of the song and other lyrics make his debt to Malcolm Gladwell plain. The point is that if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice it a long, long time, and due to his long hours of work, Macklemore figured out a way to say it well—so well that the words grip me and refuse to let go.

In his book Outliers: the Story of Success (2008), Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. To put that in perspective, if you started on January 1st, 2014, and worked at one single skill for ten hours a day, seven days a week, you’d be a true master of the skill on October 7th, 2016. Gladwell invented his number, of course, and everyone varies, but Gladwell has his reasons, and his central point is entirely sound. There are vanishingly few Mozarts in the world, child prodigies—and even Mozart reached the pinnacle of his genius because he took his talents and used them constantly. Macklemore works eighty-hour weeks.

So, Friends, let’s consider: if it would take nearly three years to master a skill while working at it non-stop, how long do you think it would take to master a skill only practicing it once a week? For an hour on Sunday mornings, say? Continue reading

These Women

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. […] I want to be with my friends, my family, and—these women.”

—Josh Lyman in “The West Wing” (Aaron Sorkin, 1999)

The question came up lately: why are we Quaker? What drew us in, and what keeps us here? I should have been ready; I was the one raising it, after all. But I only realized my own answer in the silence that followed asking the question: I’m Quaker because of the women.

To a great extent, this is just as self-serving as it sounds. Through my adolescent years, as others my age started to stop coming to meeting, I kept showing up to worship because of someone else who kept coming, too, named Elisabeth. All the women I’ve been seriously interested in romantically since college have been Quaker. Moreover I find competence immensely attractive, and Quaker women run pretty strong. So while the number of dating prospects are few, their quality is high.

As I began to unwind the thought, however, I realized there was more in it. Continue reading

The Revolution According to Mark

Joe Snyder tells Bible stories. This sometimes makes people uneasy, and two years ago I was one of those people. “I flinch every time you say, ‘Jesus,’” I confessed.

“Read the Bible,” Joe replied, not at all concerned. “That’ll take care of that flinch.” And then he told me about Mark.

This piece is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The afflicted in this case—or, perhaps, the conflicted—are those Quakers, particularly young folks like me, who are troubled by references to Jesus, Christ, Christianity, or the Bible as a whole. The comfortable are either those who are sure that they already know what the Bible says, and thus dismiss the Bible as a reactionary old tome, or those who confidently use the Bible to shore up today’s structures of power and wealth because it is so reactionary. I mean to show, however, that the Bible has a lot to offer the most radical in our Quaker faith. Continue reading

Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

Christ in Vegas

Where would Jesus go in this country?

Would he go to the megachurches or to the televangelist sanctuaries? Would he go to the Catholic cathedrals, or to the Mormon temples, or to the Southern Baptist congregations? Only, I think, to cleanse any wickedness that has taken root there. Only, I think, to cast out the fundraisers and decry the modern Pharisees. And if he did go, and if he did preach, I think he would quickly outstay his welcome, for he would preach a message of charity that is often mouthed but not always followed in such places. He’d lead the pro-life marches down to the prison where they’re hanging a man, or down to the military base where they’re planning a war; he’d bring the wine to gay weddings and pass out condoms at Pride; he’d work the fields with the migrants and never cross a picket line. He’d love the wrong people (again) and he’d quote the wrong scripture (again!), and before too terribly long, a lot of Christian churches would probably throw him out. Continue reading

What I Mean When I Say Compassion

This one is about definitions. This is how I define respect, how I define compassion, how I define the old Quaker injunction to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” And since it’s me writing this, we start with a story.

When I was in high school, there was a student named April who was developmentally disabled, with the conversational ability and habits of a seven-year-old, though she was older than I was. She was always cheerful, always smiling. On two separate occasions, I happened to see two different people interacting with April in similar ways. Both times April was brightly telling the other person about her day, or what she was headed off to do next. The difference, however, is what stands out. Continue reading