December 27, 2005

The Jew in me at Christmas time

The time called Christmas is when my Jewish upbringing butts heads with my Quakerism. Every year, without fail.

Growing up in a Jewish household, December 24th and 25th were some of the loneliest times for me as a kid. I was forbidden to call or visit any of my friends. I was told they were celebrating Christmas with their families.

There was nothing good on TV, since most of the Christmas specials were done (Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch...). And the caroling party on December 23 that my friend Sally and her family always hosted--complete with hot chocolate and cookies after a night of singing to neighbors for an hour or two--only fanned the flames of my wanting to be around friends when December 25 came around just two days later.

My mom was glad I was included in Sally's caroling parties--every year since 3rd grade and through my first year in Milwaukee after college, from age 9 to 19. Not bad.

And then came Christmas and my lonely time. Every year, without fail.

This past Sunday, on the 25th, a few of us gathered for worship. I was glad for being with friends who were Friends. The kids were quick to show off some of their new loot--insulated lunch boxes for school and a kid's set of cleaning tools, like a push-broom, dustpan, and mop. "So we can all clean together as a family," Mama explained.

At one point during worship, one of the parents swept up the children and took them upstairs for some storytelling and play-acting. It was easy to eavesdrop, since one of the children is very excited to be part of any story, and she knew this one particularly well. And upstairs isn't that far from downstairs when it comes to eavesdropping on the delightful squeals of the kids.

As I was listening to the older Friend tell the story about Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in the night, up came that familiar pang. This is a story that has led me into great pain as a child: I was different and everyone in my class knew it.

The fact that my mother would invite herself into the classroom to talk about Hanukkah didn't help me blend into the wallpaper, either. And the teachers were all too happy to have Mrs. Opp come by and point out that not every family celebrates Christmas and the story of Jesus' birth.

During worship, I heard the child say to the parent, "Jesus is coming to Earth to keep out the devil." Or something like that. I heard the parent continue the story, asking questions about how to keep the baby Jesus warm; or wasn't that an unusual star in the sky, perhaps we should follow it; or where should the shepherd stand, and did the angel sing?

In my own head, I was replaying the story of my childhood:

Girls from my class coming up to me and telling me I was going to hell because I didn't believe in Jesus.

Not knowing what to say when a store's clerk in town said "Merry Christmas" to me.

Knowing nothing about decorating a tree, and the very first chance I have to do so, with the very first ornament I ever hang, the bright red glass ball falls off the tip of the limb and shatters on the linoleum floor of the school--in front of the 6th-grade Japanese exchange student who is with me, when I had been asked to show him what it meant in the U.S. to decorate a Christmas tree...

But now, hearing the questions that the Friend is asking the children, where should the shepherd stand and does the angel sing?, like the Grinch's conversion experience, my own heart grew that day: I was learning that the story of Jesus's birth was told in play and with great love to the children, rather than being told with hatred or malice against Jews.

The schoolgirls who teased me and the store clerk who wished me a Merry Christmas probably didn't intend to cause me pain or to exclude me, and they probably weren't taught to do so by their parents, either.

Even though the time called Christmas has become a time of supporting those causes in which I believe, I still struggle to remind myself that I am included and connected to others these days; that there is a Light that was shining when the world began, and that it shines in you AND in me.

I would love it if as Quakers we could find symbols and traditions that reflected the universality, indivisibility, and continuity of the Light at this time of year. Maybe a modern-day re-telling of La Befana, in which the message could be lifted up that none of us know who the Christ Child is--it could be you, it could be me, it could be all of us!--or that all of us are the Christ Child, so we must treat one another as the Child of God that we each are.


P.S. Thanks to Nancy A, her recent post Yule is Cool, and the comments that were made there. Reading that post has opened me....

UPDATE: Kenneth S. of Homefries adds his experience of being with family at this time called Christmas. In his post, he links to a great thread on Live Journal about this topic, which begins with the question "Why should a non-practicing Jew be expected to default to a secular Christmas instead of a secular Channukah?"

My take on the renewal of Quakerism

Hello, Friends.

Sometimes this time of year is a fallow time for me. The quiet of the snowfall, along with the lengthened nights and cold days call to me, and I leave behind some of the busyness that helped get me through the late days of fall.

My attention and energy will no doubt come back to me and to The Good Raised Up over time. Thank you for your patience, as the days slowly get longer again and the hubbub of the season dies down a bit.

In looking through a number of older drafts of unposted writings, I found a couple pieces that I could link together here, about the renewal movement among some of us who have been blogging and otherwise active in our local Quaker communities.

Back in September I wrote the first draft of this post, which had elaborated on a comment I made to Beppe over on his blog. I had been thinking that part of the reason for the renewal among Friends is that liberal Quakerism, for some Friends, has become too liberal--that is, too undisciplined.

My own understanding is that among earlier Friends and those who wish to return to or conserve earlier practices and traditions of Quakerism, Friends had sought, or now seek, to come under the discipline of the Holy Spirit; to wait on the Lord for guidance and direction. As Friends with a conservative bent, we desire also to be in accord with Gospel Order, in a greater harmony in which all things are experienced as being in right relationship with one another and within God's Order.

I've written elsewhere about my summer's experience among Iowa Conservative Friends, an experience that reflects that sense of discipline, that waiting until the way forward is made clear. Over time, as I have been talking more earnestly with Conservative Friends, I come back to the observation that there appears to be a sense of "okayness" among Conservative Friends--and with some independent Friends as well--with establishing boundaries. There appears to be an intentionality in holding one another accountable to Spirit-led practice and corporate discernment.

And that intentionality and boundary-setting seems to work for me.

For me, I have discovered that I do not thrive in a community where general permissiveness is the norm, where there is no clear set of standards or limits. I like to know there are limits that I will run up against, which will then help me check and reevaluate my intentions, my motives, and my willingness or ability to maintain practices in a community that is important to me. I am coming to understand that boundaries and limits form the scaffold of one's identity: one's identity is contained within a larger group, community, or culture as defined by those limits.

(Of course, there are limits and standards that stifle one's spirit, and there are those that hone us and exercise us spiritually. Perhaps a sign of spiritual maturity is knowing the difference between the two...?)

Those of us within contemporary Quakerism who are seeking and finding joy in a Holy Discipline may be experiencing for ourselves that which lit the fire within the hearts and souls of earlier Friends: the direct experience of the Divine; the inward knowledge that when we listen for Guidance, we shall unmistakeably receive it; and the renewed understanding of the value of our Quaker practice, which in part is to help us be faithful servants to God.

I am humbled to be reminded, though, that each of us experiences joy and the Holy Spirit through different modes and through different forms of worship: programmed or unprogrammed worship; hymns or silence; Christ Jesus or Earth Mother.

For me, I experience renewal because I feel the Light increase within me and around me when I lay aside what are my own desires and instead wait for that "felt sense" that I have come to recognize as being from Somewhere other than my own good ideas. My individual discipline of waiting on God is reflected back to me by the corporate body's practiced discipline of doing the same, at least among the Friends with whom I frequently worship.

10 Ways to Renew and Strengthen Our Quakerism

In the past year or so, at one point I began considering how it was that I felt my Quakerism was growing: What had I been doing differently, what sort of conversations and activities had been holding my attention?

And then, with all the posts among Quaker bloggers out there, some of which focus on, or allude to, a renewal of deep, meaningful Quakerism, I thought I'd generate a list of possible ways to "plug ourselves back in" to the fire of the Spirit that undergirds Quakerism.

I hope you'll add your own suggestion, too, or share a bit of your own story that illuminates for others what seems to help you "stay close to the root" of Quakerism. For now, here's what I have come up with.
1. Ask a trusted Friend in your area to meet with you regularly as an elder, spiritual companion, or spiritual friend.

2. Begin reading books, pamphlets, and articles that other Friends are not only reading but are excited about.

3. As Way opens, ask a trusted Friend about her or his navigation through struggles and spiritual dry spells as well as about Spirit-fed times.

4. If you are an isolated Friend, ask other isolated Friends to exchange letters or emails with you on a regular basis, to share your spiritual lives and your journey among Friends with one another.

5. Make a commitment to travel to a workshop, program, or event for Friends that is outside of your monthly meeting's or worship group's geographical area. Consider inviting another Friend to join you!

6. Hold yourself in the Light for several days in a row, 5-15 minutes at a time.

7. Find a way to "give back" to the Quaker community in a way that holds power for you and is meaningful to you.

8. Set up a study group, discussion group, or "Friendly Four or Friendly Eight" group about a book, pamphlet, or topic that speaks to your condition. Or ask for help from an appropriate committee to do so.

9. Convene a Meeting for Worship with attention to Renewing Quakerism, or a Meeting for Worship with attention to Eldership and Ministry.

10. Start a blog, write out your honest thoughts, questions, and struggles, and watch what happens.
Hmm... some of these are still on my To Do List (e.g. numbers 5, 8, and 9). I better get this post up and keep listening for Opportunities to pursue them!


December 9, 2005

Christmas and inspired philanthropy

In recent years, I have considered how to approach the holidays. Each year I do a teeny bit better at letting go of expectations, laying aside the "need" for all the cookies, treats, and presents, and lessening the overall stress of the holidays.

There is one question, though, that visits me each year at this time:

What do contemporary Friends have to say about celebrating at this time of year?
I find that I long for some discussion and even a model of truly living as if each day is holy, but the pull of bringing family together in late December--between college semesters, taking a few extra days off at work, or traveling to see frail loved ones--clearly has a strong hold on even the most faithful of Quakers.

Like striving to sustain a personal discipline of daily worship without experiencing worship among a corporate body, it is hard for me to let go of the trappings of the holidays on my own. Maybe these days we're not meant to or not called to lay down the festivities, but I still want the discussion in order to discern if that's the case.

One topic I hear about at this time of year, almost as a surrogate for the larger topic, is that of simplifying. Simplifying is not the same as practicing simplicity, but it seems as if the former has also nearly become a surrogate for the latter.

Simplifying does not address the same question as What distractions might I remove, especially at this time of year, so that I might better hear God and God's guidance for me? For me, I'd like an adult education program, or an agenda item at a business session, to address the faith community's understanding of and commitment to how each day is sacred and how we are led to respond to the Christmases, Easters, and Thanksgivings of each year.

Of course, I have to acknowledge my own shortcomings with participating in the holidays. I have sought a balance, or more precisely, a "canceling out factor" that somehow would assuage my guilt for having held this holiday season as more special than other times of the year.

I recognize that lessening my guilt doesn't equate an increased faithfulness, but still I am drawn to share my experience:

One tradition that seems to have crept into this time of year for our household, by way of the "canceling out factor," is attending to our philanthropy, our charitable giving. My partner and I consider new non-profits that we've learned about and that do work that reflects our values and address our concerns. Every second or third year, we seem to engage in our own version of a "budget summit" to update our philanthropic plan. It's a way for us to connect as a couple and check that we are helping address the needs of the world in some small but hopefully significant way.

And just to reiterate--I absolutely LOVED the book Inspired Philanthropy. It helped me confirm that money can be an ally and not something to be ashamed of. This book helps remind me that when I identify my values and philanthropic concerns, I become a more effective philanthropist. I find that I look forward to making charitable gifts, and consequently, I seek out new non-profits to support. And the holidays become a time of focusing on what I can give rather than on what I can get.

Here's my short list of organizations I feel great about supporting:

  • American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam: a U.S. organization (not Quaker) that supports a peace-centered, multi-faith, Jewish-Arab village in Israel;

  • Women's Foundation of Minnesota: supports women and girls in Minnesota (check out the GirlsBEST work they are doing!); and currently seeks to address racial concerns among women of color in Minnesota;

  • District 202: an organization in Minnesota that provides a safe space for queer youth;

  • this year, I'll be adding Christian Peacemaker Teams. Their website now includes a photo gallery of some of their work.

  • I'm still awaiting that adult education program, though. Or that approved minute from Meeting for Worship with attention to Business...

    In the meantime, and while starting the early draft of this post, I came across a set of personal stories--four to five webpages of them--from Friends and from friends of Friends, about how they approach the holidays, namely Christmas. I thought the web-reference was worth sharing.

    I'm also wanting to find out what organizations you support, what groups inspire your own philanthropy. Please identify them in your comments, because each year, I feel I could be doing more, and maybe you can inspire me to do just that.

    And not just in December.


    December 4, 2005

    Come, come quickly!
    CPT information

    Here are some resources, activities, and letters you might consider sharing or participating in, regarding the members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who were taken hostage in Iraq. Thanks to Lorcan for helping stir me out of my slumber...


  • LATEST ADDITION, 13 Dec 2005: blog from former CPTer and CPT founder, Peace Talk

  • ADDITION: a worthwhile blogpost from Amanda

  • the website for Christian Peacemaker Teams

  • news about Canadian James Loney

  • news about Canadian Harmeet Singh Sooden

  • news about Briton Norman Kember

  • news about American Tom Fox

  • a website for helping free the kidnapped Peacemaker Team members, written by personal friends of American Tom Fox

  • Lorcan's own open letter and some surprising responses to Lorcan's open letter, on Aljazeera--some of these responses might wake more of us up to the variety of perspectives of the United States

  • another list of additional resources

  • Tom Fox's blog, Waiting in the Light

  • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.

    Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

    - by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945