Quiet

Keen-eyed observers of this blog have no doubt noticed that it has gone silent. All five of you might be interested in an explanation.

I began this blog because I have something to say… but to be honest, mostly I felt like I had to do something. I felt powerless and unheeded, and I felt a fire in my bones—a fire which threatened to explode and break me, if I did not find some way of taking action. So I howled my thoughts into the internet, and occasionally people paid heed!

My life is changing, however. After a rough winter and a rough spring, I was finally persuaded to deal with my depression through medication. My suspicions about putting chemicals in my head were eroded by the experience and counsel of friends. Moreover, for years I had felt a simple leading: “Be yourself!” To which I always responded, “But I’m terrible.” Finally I came to realize that I am not my illness, and that to be truly me, I had to face my depression down.

The medication I am taking seems to be working quite well. The real test shall be this winter, but for the past few months I have felt somewhat more energetic and significantly more in control. So far the side effects appear to be making my bed and writing to my grandmother. But I also began—virtually spontaneously, which I find telling—to set aside some time each day for silence and worship. I’d tried and failed to develop this habit in the past, but now it is part of my daily life. I have no set length of time or time day for this practice; in fact, I have felt the call to silence at almost any time: walking in the park, reading the news. I center myself through quiet and slow breathing, or through my “mantras”: “Thy will be done.” “Thank you.” “Make wide my soul.” Sometimes the Spirit lends a hand, and I am told in no uncertain terms, “Be Still.”

This new practice has deepened my spiritual life considerably, not that it was altogether shallow before. I have felt the presence of the Light in my life quite strongly in the past weeks—I feel it as I type this now. This has steered me to finally act on some leadings I only toyed with in the past, such as giving up playing war games (and thus giving up a major part of some friendships). It has led me to speak in meeting several times, and other times led me to help deepen the silence.

Most significantly, this greater silence in my life and my new clarity of mind has led me to look again at my course. I find that while most of the essays I have posted in this blog are valuable, only a few rise to the level of messages. So I have slowed my writing, waiting for true Inspiration instead of being motivated to write by my anger—or even by my compassion. I have also seen that I do not need a blog to build an audience for my words: in fact, many Quakers seem to be seeking my opinion! So I begin to see that instead of shouting into the Internet abyss, perhaps my true calling is to speak into the silence of Meeting for Worship, and Meeting for Worship for Business.

At least for a time, my calling is to work in the Society of Friends. How I shall do that remains to be seen, and in many ways depends on how well I fare through the bleak winter months. But I know my course. It passes through all my meetings, and through next summer’s Friends General Conference gathering in Colorado. Beyond that I am not sure where I go, but knowing where to start is enough, and it makes a nice change. I have some inklings as to where I might go, however; I have some projects in the works. One, at least, is written; I am seasoning it for a long time, due to its weight. Other projects are more communal, for instance my attendance at other regional monthly meetings and some trips down to Portland for a young-Quakers potluck.

It has been months since I felt helpless, and months since I felt the fire in my bones burning its way out. I do not think this is because my medication has made me so mellow that I simply don’t notice or simply don’t care; nor do I think the fire was just a symptom of my disease. Rather, I think I no longer burn because I am finally on my way.

I am far from finished with this blog. Among other things I still have some essays waiting to be posted. I also have some ideas for future commentary, and I might sometimes write on some of my spoken ministry (as I have done occasionally before). But the Generous Grasp is no longer my primary means of speech or action in this world, though it will remain one of my tools. Expect new posts when you see them, but keep your eyes open; there is probably more that needs to be said.

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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

No Second Coming

A whisper came into my soul and said, “Write!” And I asked, “What shall I write?” And the whisper said, “Write the words that are given to you, write the law that I wrote in your heart.” The whisper said, “Write of the world you live in, not of the next.” The whisper said, “Write of love and justice.”

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; because for the wealth of one we have beggared a thousand, and for the feast of ten we have let a million starve. The wealth of the great was a gift given that it might be given again, a blessing to be handed on for the blessing of all, but out of greed and pride and luxury it has been held back. Therefore all luxury shall pass away, and its passage will not be peaceful.

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; for what the One gave open-handed has been taken and consumed, and the fingers and the hand as well, and now we gnaw the wrist! The streams and the trees of the mountains are stripped and fouled, and the mountains themselves are thrown down, and not by faith but greed. The sea has been poisoned, and the air itself, and all the bounty that was once called limitless draws near to its end. Continue reading

The Symbol

I see a lot of Christian churches in Seattle that have a rainbow flag somewhere on their signs. The message is obvious, of course: services start at 11 on Sundays and gays can come as they are. I used to love seeing these up; it was reassuring to know that my friends were welcome in houses of worship in this town. But lately they’ve started to bother me.

Not because I dislike the rainbow: it’s a lovely symbol, one of hope. One of my fondest memories is seeing the rainbow flag waving boldly over the Pride March–it stirred my heart more than the Stars and Stripes have lately. It’s certainly not that I’ve suddenly turned anti-gay in the last few days. Nor am I going to tell these churches to take their rainbows down, because it’s a symbol of openness and welcome that loving congregations need to display in order to make it clear that they do not hate men for loving men, or women for loving women.

What bothers me is that Christian churches already have a symbol that should be saying exactly that: the cross.

In the earliest days of the church, the cross was not commonly used: Christians preferred the fish or the lamb. For starters, being Christian was not so easy in those days, and the fish served as something of a recognition code: the rainbow has a precedent. Moreover the cross was, after all, the method of executing criminals and traitors. It would be as if every church had a hangman’s noose dangling from their steeples. It was a shameful thing, and a symbol of death. Personally I think the early Christians were wrong, though–the cross itself had been redeemed. Once a sign of vice and death, it became a mark of the holy.

This was absolutely in line with the message of the church in those first few years, which was: come and be welcome. We do not care if you are slave or free, rich or poor, man or woman; come in. Welcome home. You are beloved of God and beloved of the rest of us, just for being human.

This was the message that spread across Rome like wildfire. Is it any wonder? By then Rome relied enormously on slaves, an economic system that only worsened as the empire decayed. Moreover some of the most prominent members of the early church were well-off Roman women, who were denied many of the most basic rights and freedoms simply because of their sex. Without that message of blessing to all, of loving welcome to those of the lowest status, Christianity would be just another Jewish cult, if it existed at all. A message of welcome… and a message of exaltation. The sufferers would become the blessed. That’s not just a purely theological statement, either; those well-off Roman matrons were no doubt lending a hand and lending money to help their poorer parishioners.

Welcome. Uplift. Practical help. That’s what Christian meant, once upon a time, and the cross was the emblem.

Nowadays, however…

Nowadays the cross has to have another symbol beside it to let the sufferers know that they will be safe there. Nowadays the cross has to prove itself. Nowadays the cross is a symbol that the persecuted flee. Those with open hearts have to be reminded that the cross was once a sign of openness too. A friend told me just the other day, “It’s always surprising when a Christian acts like a Christian.” Nowadays the cross is almost worse than when it started. It has gone from an emblem of criminality and fear to an emblem of hypocrisy and hate.

I know that many churches, like the ones I go past in Seattle with the rainbow loud and proud on their signs next to the pastor’s names, are struggling against the tide, striving to prove that there is more to Christianity than hate. But I do not like that they have to struggle at all.

Maybe the day will come when those brave congregations that stick to love will have to set aside their crosses and just fly the rainbow from the steeple. Maybe Jesus will have to get another symbol. But personally, I hope for the day when the cross is reclaimed from its present message of hate and judgment, and again symbolizes what Jesus made it:

“I do not care who you are; I do not care if you are man or woman or in-between, gay or straight or all of the above, rich or poor or getting by. I take you all into my embrace, from the highest to the lowest. I love you as you were made; welcome home.”

Peace Is Courage

These times erode people like me; they gnaw us, leave us diminished. We spend so much energy in just staying on our feet that to take a step forward exhausts us. Just as well, perhaps, since so often the path’s unclear to my type and I. Our victories are hard-won and our defeats seem to come too easily. Storms are coming–and we are already weary. It sometimes seems that the whole world has gone gray.

It’s at times like these that we must remember our inspirations. Inspiration, meaning putting spirit back in us–and spirit meaning, in the oldest sense, breath. Life. The light may be failing, the storms may be gathering or breaking, but we carry the fire in our hearts that never leaves us, if we can only remember it. There is life in us yet. There is strength we have not yet called on. We can rise, and rise again.

Let us rise by making peace.

Peace flows from the still center within. Some have accused those who choose peace to be cowards, but remember: peace is nothing but courage. It is the courage to go unarmed–although perhaps not undefended–while everyone else is girded for war. It is the courage to walk into the fire in order to pass through it, when everyone else tries to flee. It is the courage to go up against every command, every assumption, every instinct of one’s own body, and trust.  So, remember courage. And remember courage is not the same as fearlessness. We are afraid; we have reason to be. War and struggles for power stem from wanting to have nothing to fear, by killing or dominating all sources of fears. Peace stems from facing one’s fears.

But peace within is only a job half-done, although it’s a grand start. We must also have peace between us. This can be done by taking our courage and adding compassion. Everyone around us who is lashing out, everyone who is dominating and conquering, is doing so out of fear and pain. Yes, even the most greedy and arrogant. Yes, even the most power-hungry and destructive. They fear justice, after all–and time. All the money and all the force in the world cannot hold off time. Remember that, too. Others have joined them for other fears: fear of poverty, fear of change, fear of what they do not understand, fear of Hell, fear of isolation–fear of being alone in a world they no longer recognize. But it’s all fear. So peace can be built, oftentimes, by facing our own fears and then teaching our enemies to do the same. Peace can be built, stone by stone and seed by seed, when we come to our enemies in compassion and say, “Don’t be afraid.”

It won’t always work on the first try, or on the fiftieth. But it can work, and it will never work unless we start by trying.

So, my friend, we have work to do. Let us make a covenant between us, you and I, here and now–to be at peace, and to build peace wherever we go.

When we see fear or grief or rage or hate building–in an act, in a word, in a lack of a word–let us step forward and speak. When the argument builds on the street, don’t turn away, don’t flee; these are your sisters and your brothers who are in pain. When the cruel joke comes, or the casual harassment, remember the fear behind them, and speak–especially if the joke is aimed at another, especially if the harassment is aimed at someone who isn’t there to speak for themselves. When fear sweeps into power, when hate takes charge, stand up and speak out–speak with compassion for the fearful, even if they are oppressing you, even if they boil your blood. Underneath everything, they’re afraid too.

You will be rejected. Facing that chance takes great courage.

You will be laughed at. This is worse; facing that chance is courage also.

You will be ignored. This is worst of all, and is courage’s very core.

But there will be times when you will not be rejected, not be laughed at, not ignored–not entirely. So stand. Speak. Be brave. And take the chance. Build the world anew, one act of courage at a time. One day at a time. One step at a time.

No matter how we are burdened, no matter how lost we feel, listen: the sun will come up. Day will come again. The clouds and the darkness cannot keep out the light, not forever. Remember that, and be brave.

 

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— JRR Tolkien

“We cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between. But there is still a chance to seize that last, fragile moment. To choose something better. To make a difference… and I intend to do just that.”
— J. Michael Straczynski

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
— Isaiah 40:31

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
— George Fox

“Somebody has to speak for these people… so now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as anything I know this: they will try again… A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”
— Joss Whedon

I will not let you fall.
— The One Who Is

Credo

I believe in choice, and I believe in choosing wisely.

I believe that I have an independent will and that I can use it — but I also believe that there are good ways and bad to use that will. Liberty is therefore a great good, but only because it allows people to make the right choices — it is a means to an end, not an end itself. Unbridled freedom, choosing solely for choice’s sake — living in the Land of Do-As-You-Please — can be both good and bad, and choosing well requires more than simple freedom.

I believe that everyone can be helped to choose wisely. My own choices, or at least the wise ones, are helped by my friends, my family, and (greatly important to me) the stories I have heard and I myself tell. This is why I went into teaching, to tell stories that could help people choose well.

I believe that the Golden Rule is a pretty reasonable guide for our choices, as long as we remember to apply it to those living in the past and the future as well as to those living in the present.  But I also believe that everything should be put to the test, for there are always exceptions. I also believe that sometimes wisdom needs to give way to nobility and heroism — and, occasionally, to pure silliness.

I believe, moreover, that people can only learn what is wise by being foolish for a while. As much as we can manage, therefore, we should let them make their mistakes, and then help them learn afterward. Continue reading

Good Friday

If you take I-40 up from Asheville to Lexington, near the Tennessee/Kentucky border you will encounter a massive store called “Adult World,” emblazoned with multiple red XXX signs. Just down the road from this store there is a giant white cross.

We were returning from a trip down to Savannah and passed this place by; Josh decided that we were going to stop and take pictures, because it was just too perfect. I certainly didn’t mind; I was in a slightly silly mood that day, and as much as I love my faith and my God, I also love the opportunity to not take either too seriously. Plus, in my inexperienced state, I thought the side trip could perhaps be educational.

We got off the highway at Exit 117; there’s a gas station, a restaurant, Adult World, and the cross. That’s it. As I recall, a dirt road ran up into the hills, but there was no other indication of traffic coming through this little corner of the South except towards the world’s most enormous adult-content store. We pulled into the parking lot and broke out the cameras. Brenton whined about not being able to get the angles right; I pointed out that we were taking a picture of a giant cross next to an equally giant porn store, and that aesthetics didn’t enter into it.

The store itself was not educational after all. I will not disturb you with the details, except to point out the epitomizing characteristic of the place: the men’s restroom was painted pitch black, the paint looking suspiciously recent — and thick. Despite these precautions, some determined fellow had already gotten his phone number up on the wall.

The cross was at least 50 feet tall, and was apparently made out of some relative of aluminum siding. Up close it looked rather cheaply constructed, although sturdy enough. I had to scoff. It was obvious that the cross had been put up in opposition to Adult World, in challenge to the sinfulness of the place. But as far as I could see, all the cross was managing to do was draw in more customers; the irony of it was too powerful a draw. Many college students on a road trip would probably have stopped at Adult World anyway, just for a giggle; the cross essentially made it mandatory.

It was nearing sunset as we got back on the road and drove north. The clouds were pink and gold Chinese dragons in the low light, dancing above the old Appalachian hills. Admiring the sky, I remembered that it was Good Friday. Continue reading