Western Lessons

I have crossed the American West, particularly Montana, several times in the last two years. The first time was by car, via Interstates 90 and 84, when some friends and I were traveling from Seattle to Friends General Conference (FGC). After that, I started visiting my beloved, Adrian, in Chicago. The trips, and what I’ve learned subsequently, have taught me vital lessons about what Friends—and indeed, all humans—are now called to do.

The friends I traveled with to FGC are dedicated environmentalists. One is the founder of the Seattle chapter of 350.org, and the other is her daughter, who planned and led a protest against climate change at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle before she left for college this fall. As we crossed the western plains we saw hundreds of windmills, generating electricity with no carbon required, and we were cheered to see them. But as we drove we reflected on the emissions we were pumping out, for even though we were driving a Prius, we were still burning oil. Continue reading

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 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

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

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

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

One in Seven Billion

We are one.

It’s a frail and fragile solution I offer to the problems of the world; its only virtue is that it is the only possible permanent fix. In the old Quaker phrasing, it runs, “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” The voice out of Nazareth had it as “Love your neighbor.” In more modern terms, it might be, “You’ve got to be kind.” Give all people what you would ask for yourself and for your own family. Because we are all one kin, one people — we are all one. 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

The Truth This Night

I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell. I don’t know if there will ever be a second coming — or if there ever was a first. Heaven sounds lovely and makes a nice bribe. Hell sounds rather less appealing and makes a fantastic threat. The Second Coming can inspire hope but also slacking. The First Coming makes a wonderful tale worth retelling and living by, but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t know if any of it is true.

I wasn’t there; I hear the story but I’ve been taught about how stories can change in the telling, and even if I had been in the crowd at the foot of the Mount, I know too well how my memories of the sermon on it would be garbled. I’ve seen things and heard things, true. I have felt someone’s deep presence in my empty room, and heard human tongues speak holy words. But I still do not know, beyond doubt, that the One Who Is actually is, or that the Kingdom can be made real — especially when the still small voice whispering in my heart tells me to keep doubting, that it makes me very useful. So I know that I know next to nothing.

But I do know suffering, and I do know hope.

I know my suffering is dwarfed ten times over by millions, but suffering is very real. I know it in my bones and in my arms and in my soul. And hope — maddening hope, irrational hope, hope that makes us keep going when everything reasonable tells us to lie down and give up — I know that too.

So, driven by both suffering and hope, I have to do my part to help people in this terrific and terrible world. I have to hand out the dollars and serve up the soup, but I also have to speak the words I am given, including these. Sometimes the soup matters more than the words. But the words don’t get eaten. The right word can come alive, and do things I never dreamed of.

And what is that word?

Let’s forget heaven tonight. Let’s forget hell today. Let’s set aside all thought of salvation or eternity. Let us forget demons and angels and the whole troop; abandon the Torah, leave off the Gospel, lay down the Koran. For a day or an hour, we’ll forget every holy word we have ever heard in our lives. And in that hour we’ll feel the suffering around us. We’ll think of the pain of our sister, the grief of our brother. Then in hope, let’s do any thing to ease that suffering.

Tomorrow we can go back to holy writ and hierarchy. But right now, join me in forgetting everything except the pain you feel, the pain I feel, the same pain in everyone around us — that, and the hope that pushes through pain.

I say these things because I know how the story goes. The great speaker arises, the words flow forth, a new faith springs up, the fire rekindles. But the story always ends the same way. The speaker dies, the words are forgotten, or misquoted, or sabotaged, or written down (worst of all for a living word) and everything returns to normal. The people who have seen a great light go back to walking in darkness. We focus on the strata of the world — who’s on top, who’s not. We start judging. The grit and dust of daily life chokes our inner fire. We forget compassion, in the old sense of that word: we forget that everyone around us suffers as we do, and rather than suffer with we suffer alone, and leave others to suffer alone as well.

I know the story. I know the cycle. I know how it goes.

I don’t like it.

So I’m not here to talk about Heaven or Hell. I’m not going to say who’s saved or who’s damned. I do have a little to say about the One Who Made Me Write This, but all of that is guesswork and notions wrapped around a handful of truth. Mostly, I think, the One is not so interested in how we worship; the One sees all belief. This time around, I think the One wants to know how we are compassionate, and how we are hopeful. Whose suffering have we seen today? And whose hopes have we built up?

So let us forget all religion, for a little while, and be good to someone. It may not save us or redeem us or purify us. It might change the world if enough of us do it, but I’m not holding my breath nor expecting it of any of you. All I know is that for one day, there will be a little less suffering and a little more hope.

And that’s what I have to say.