An Example

Once there was a good Quaker. She subscribed to Friends Journal and read all the FCNL action emails. She served as clerk of Coffee and Oversight Committee when asked to, and gave regularly to AFSC. She had raised all her children as Quakers, and one still even went to meeting! In short she was an exemplary Friend. And the Light came to her and gave her a powerful leading to wear a bright-orange traffic cone on her head as a hat. Continue reading


Introducing the Weekly Query

In my branch of the Quaker tradition, there are no set statements of belief, no precepts. In their place, Friends over the years have worked out queries. The queries are sharp, probing questions, not intended to be easily answered, and never intended to be answered in a rote fashion. They are intended to provoke thought. Nor are there any “right” answers, since the questions are often deeply personal–and the answers for any individual or group may change over time. They are often asked in groups, organized thematically. Answering them can be a spiritual discipline, and in theory the introspection leads to action.

Consider the following queries, out of many, on equality:

Do we avoid being drawn into violent reactions against those who are destructive of human dignity? Do we reach out to the violator as well as the violated with courage and love?

In short, the queries are tough.

I’m embarking on a new series for the Generous Grasp: the Weekly Query. While I may occasionally draw on classic Quaker queries, mostly they’ll be hard questions I’ve thought of or had to face myself. You can respond to the queries, but bear in mind that if you have an instant answer, you may wish to think again.

Moreover this series will always give you (and me) a reason to come to the blog on a regular basis, something which I feel I’ve lacked in my haphazard postings.

As the queries reflect long-running problems and processes in our lives, I may repost ones from time to time. The terms “you,” “we,” “yours,” and “our” may be used indiscriminately throughout. Interpret them as you choose.

Let us therefore begin.

Are we aware that we speak through inaction as well as action?

(Taken from the North Pacific Yearly Meeting Book of Faith and Practice)

Good News

I hear a lot of bad news lately. Sometimes it’s just the quality of the reporting, of course, but usually it’s the content. I see reactionism rising, neglect from those in power, and the ostensible good guys either trip over their own feet or lose sight of their original aims. Poverty’s spreading. I’ve been hearing of suicide, of abuse. My friends are struggling with unemployment and illness. There’s a lot of pain in my world right now: my people’s, my friends’, my own.

I can bear my own, with time, but it’s seeing others suffer that grieves me so much, so I can’t sit by any more. What can I do?

To stare down pain, a poet will write verses and a singer will write songs; a storyteller, when he sees his loved ones hurting, will tell tales to raise the soul. He’ll sing of a victory.

Now, I could tell you about long-ago successes–it’s kind of my forte–but I think I should tell you all a new story. It’s a story about me, but not just about me; it’s my triumph, but not just mine. And it’s not news to some, but not common knowledge, so: time to speak up. Continue reading

Hear the Word

I would see justice done.

I would see the long labor of the poor rewarded at last, rewarded as it has never been even acknowledged in full. I would see the return of investment and the fruits of harvest benefit all who sweated for them, not merely those with their names on sheets of paper.

I would see children fed. I would see the sick tended. I would see the prisoners and the impoverished remembered as human. I would have it so that no one has to stand on the sidewalk and beg for scraps. I would see us remember that all who live on this earth are our kin, our family, no matter the color of their skin, the language of their tongue, the riches in their pockets, or the faith of their heart. I would see justice done as it has never been done, not since some few thought to exalt themselves at the expense of the many.

I am done with this misery. I am done with this suffering. I am done with laws and codes and customs that claim it is fitting that the poor live in pain. I am done with “deserving.” I am done with “They are lazy.” I am done with “Don’t coddle them.” Do you hear me? I love all, and deserving’s got nothing to do with it. In this I follow my god, the One, and the words that the Holy One gives to me. Continue reading


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

Divine Timing

A few days ago I had a fair amount of misfortune with buses. One of my lessons got out early, and if I had jogged to the bus stop I could have caught a bus that would have had me home by 8:30 rather than 9:05 — but I assumed I could not catch it. As it was I had miscalculated. Instead I passed the half-hour to the next bus in Half-Price Books, where I was able to purchase Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” (which I have longed for), inform the clerk that the actress she was thinking of was Alyson Hannigan, and later on direct another passenger to the bus stop he needed. In short, my bad timing proved useful not only for me, but for two other people.

It’s not the first time the bus has taught me this lesson; on one occasion I missed my stop on the Route 44, got off later than usual, and immediately saw a homeless man panhandling outside Bartell’s; I had $5 in my pocket and I gave it to him, understanding that this was exactly why I had delayed getting off.

Accidental leadings, we might call them — not that they are leadings that happen by accident, sent by some absentminded Almighty, but leadings that take the form of seeming accidents, inconvenient for us but ultimately positive for others (or for ourselves as well).

So when we are hampered or inconvenienced or delayed, let us open ourselves to the possibilities that might flow from the delay. This is not to say we should bear abuse or injustice lightly; while good things can flow from our response to abuse, we should not, as some rather controlling faiths have advised, simply suffer in silence when we are willfully mistreated. But simple misfortune might actually prove to be great good fortune, if we bear the inconveniences and don’t let them frustrate us into rage.

“The One still controls random chance,” I said once — the chance meetings, the want of a horseshoe nail, the small flickers of fate that tug at us (and the whole world) in different directions than the ones we want to go in. Let’s remember, as we ad lib our lines and entrances on life’s strange stage, that there may well be a director behind the scenes and in the audience who has an idea about the pacing of the play.

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.

What Have You Done?

God talked to me today.

I’m Quaker; it’s a bit more common with us than you might think, yet there’s always a moment of doubt as I write those words. Still: the One Insufficiently Labeled as God talked to me. He metaphorically sat down on the edge of my figurative bed, looked me in the eye, and said, “Paul, what have you done with your brother Harvey?”

I knew who he meant, although I’ll confess my mental image was of Sean Penn. But since I didn’t say anything right away, God went on. “What have you done with your brothers Harvey and Matthew, and with your sisters? Their blood is crying out to me from the streets and the fields.”

“I didn’t kill them, boss,” I said. “I’m not Cain.”

“I know, Paul. I was there, remember? I’m always there. But what have you done with your sisters and your brothers and all your other slain kin?”

“What can I do?” I said, flinging my arms wide. “I can’t protect them, as much as I want to. I can’t save them, I can’t bring them back. They’re dead. What can I do?”

He raised an eyebrow, and said, “You can start by asking the right questions.”

I paused, and then said, “What can I do?”

He smiled. “There’s something I need for you to say for me, Paul. Write this down.” Continue reading