A Flying Fable

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a mountainous kingdom where people loved to fly. It was a national passion. Most anyone who dared went flying, because it was a highly dangerous activity in the old days, leading to many crashes, injuries, and deaths. But because the mountains were separated by treacherous ravines and raging rivers, flying also served a vital purpose: it made it possible to get from one part of the kingdom to another. But generally, those who went flying went because flying is a wonderful thing.

Because flying was so dangerous, and because so many families were left shaken or broken by the deaths of members in flying accidents, the leading priests of the kingdom decided that it was against God’s will to go flying—except under certain circumstances. If one had to fly, the priests pronounced, it had to be done properly: a specific and legitimate destination in mind, not flying for sheer pleasure, and for legitimate, non-pleasurable reasons; a limit on the number of times someone flew in life, and with whom; legal documents such as wills and inheritance squared away in advance, and official oversight obtained; and all consequences to be accepted, whatever they might be.

Some of the priests had decided that flying for fun was against God’s will, and so it needed to be controlled; others had come to the conclusion that flying needed to be controlled, and so decided it was against God’s will. Whichever way it began, however, it came to the same thing, and it was written down accordingly.

Time went on, and, since humans are clever, ways of flying more safely were invented, and then more ways still. As the gear improved, more and more people began flying not just to get around, but for the sheer joy of it. Since many more people were flying now, there were more accidents, but if done well, flying was increasingly safe. It became commonplace—to the point where if someone flew only for business, or not at all, they were considered quite old-fashioned.

The priests who had pronounced on flying in the old days were long gone, of course, but their written words remained, and their priestly successors were numerous and vocal. Not a few, seeing that the danger had passed, began to drop their objections to flying, or looked the other way, or even outright encouraged some limited forms of pleasure-flights.

Others, however, objected strenuously. They pointed out that flying for pleasure was time wasted and resources squandered. They pointed out that flying for pleasure decreased the significance of business flights. And most of all they pointed to the holy writings, which said plainly that flying was only to be done under certain circumstances, and certainly not just for the fun of it.

As flying became more and more common, this latter group of priests grew more forceful in condemning it—and in a fascinating wrinkle, they objected with increasing rage to the safety gear which had made flying less dangerous. Every time someone invented a new flying safety device, these particular priests denounced it vigorously, on the grounds that it would encourage more people to fly. And whenever anyone offered classes on flying safety, oh, how these priests would howl!

Flying was still inherently risky, of course. There were always unexpected updrafts and so forth. But as the risk dropped closer and closer to zero, flying for fun simply became the norm.

Still, certain priests kept protesting. If anyone ever suggested to them that their rules were now totally archaic, and had been written in reaction to a situation that no longer existed, they vehemently denied that the laws of their God had ever had anything to do with safety. The law had always been that way, they said, and always would be: God’s will was God’s will.

And while they were wrong about “it’s always been that way,” they might have been right about “God’s will.” Who can discern the mind of God?

But one thing is certain: flying is fun. And it really has always been that way, and it really always will be.

Draw your own conclusions.

The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed. 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

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

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

Safety Net

Our social safety net is still fraying. In some places it is altogether worn through. This is perhaps not surprising, what with the rhetoric that fills our airwaves and legislatures: poor people are lazy, drug-addicted parasites, and safety-net programs like TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), and others are just enabling their lazy, drug-addled leeching. “Leech” is more commonly applied to welfare recipients than to Social Security recipients, but even there we hear talk of “hard decisions,” which always come back to “How do we cut back?” instead of “How do we raise more?”

Democrats being what they are, there’s not much language coming back from the Left in defense of welfare recipients, but I’d like to provide some. A Google search turns up a few people, mostly actors and singers (perhaps because they get asked a lot of questions about their lives), who have stories about growing up in poverty and relying on one or another social safety net. Let’s have a roll call, shall we? There’s Shania Twain, famously, but also Kelly Clarkson, Tobey Maguire, JK Rowling, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin…

Wait, what?

Yes, that Jesus. Obviously the social safety net took a different form in his day, but he made use of the ancient version. In Israel it went like this: the law (specifically Leviticus 19:9-10) commanded that everyone had to leave some of their crop for poor people to eat, both by leaving some of the crop unharvested when the rest was brought in―leaving some grapes on the vine, leaving the ears of wheat at the edges of the field, and leaving anything that spilled on the ground lying there. In fact, those with more land had to leave more behind, which is almost progressive taxation. Moreover the law also said that anyone could eat from anyone else’s fields, though they couldn’t take anything out of the field in question. In this way everyone who had something left a little for those who had nothing, and the reason for this is given in a rather important commandment later in Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus? Listen to this: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (Matthew 12:1) That’s all twelve disciples taking advantage of the laws protecting the poor. Jesus himself presumably never had to worry about going hungry (lilies of the field, and so on) but he had to feed his flock, after all.

Now it’s true that Jesus likely worked as a carpenter before his ministry began, and his disciples had all sorts of jobs from fisherman to tax collector; it’s also true that where they could get freely-offered hospitality, they took it. That was the better way, and it remains the better way. But for those in-between places, Jesus and company relied on Israel’s form of food stamps.

In fact, if you squint a bit, you can see another connection to today’s situation, because just one verse later the Pharisees chide the grain-plucking because the disciples did it on the sabbath. In short, when they used the social safety net, the disciples were accused of immorality. Some things never change.

So when Jesus said, “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me,” he meant it. He and his group had used the laws protecting the poor; in all likelihood they were poor, having renounced all wealth, property, and careers to follow the call. Israel had protections and help for its poor citizens, and Jesus was among them. Which means, as I’ve often stated, that those who slander the poor are slandering the man from Galilee. “As you do for the least of these” cuts both ways.

Which is, I think, worth remembering.

Old Lessons

Every homeless person I pass, every abused child I hear of, every accusation of rape that is met with hostility and scorn, every fresh disaster worked by human hands, from pollution to famine to war — all these call me to my words. How could they not? I follow a teacher who taught me to love my neighbor as myself, and yet I live a life that spits on such philosophy — indeed, I live such a life and I am enriched by it. I follow a teacher who taught me to share all I have, and I live a life that insists on hoarding my wealth. I follow a teacher who taught me to see the holiness in every one, and I live a life of privilege in a system that treats some as gods and the rest as raw material, to use or waste as the gods see fit.

Then I see those charged by my teacher to set these wrongs aright — minister, priest, pastor on one level, every Christian on another — and too many of them are the scoffers and abusers, the ones who perpetuate the structures of power and the abuses of that power. Not all. There are quite a few who give all they have and more, who love their neighbor with compassion as their guiding star. But any is too many, when it comes to those who say they follow Jesus and attack their neighbors anyway. I look around at my fellows in faith, and for every one I see laboring to heal the world, I see one or two or ten wounding it further, sometimes without even knowing it. I may not see all the good that’s being done, which is as it should be. But when I see the poor on the streetcorners mocked and attacked and scorned, then there is more to do, and I see many of those charged with helping the struggles leading the charge against love and justice, or applauding the attacks from the sidelines. The man from Nazareth came to change the way the world worked, and too many of his followers are standing in his way: they are themselves the problem.

In such times all I can do is quote the words of the prophets, time and time again:

“‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
The Lord has told you, oh mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
(Micah 6:6-8)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:21, 23-24)

“‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.”
(Matthew 22:37-40)

Why must I say this again? Why must I teach old lessons anew? Better men than I have taught us to love our neighbors — men, yes, and better women, too, for all that they don’t make it into the books as much. Why is it so hard to learn? Why is it such a struggle for so many to remember? I see so many pouring out their piety on one side, and pouring out scorn upon the poor from the other, yet all from the same mouth. One of their words must be a lie, and their wealth tells us which it is, because they “cannot serve both God and wealth.” They must renounce one master or another, and it seems they have chosen to renounce God.

But to those who renounce wealth, shall they be poor, shall they suffer, shall they starve? No, for the Generous One shall not forget them — and those they have helped will not forget them either. Let those who worship wealth go their own way, because it is a way of loneliness, and meaningless. Those who worship the god I follow shall have each other.

Make your choice!