January 31, 2006

Opening myself to Scripture

A strange thing is happening ever so slowly in my Quaker life these days: I am looking up passages in Scripture.

I wouldn't say that the Scriptures are being opened to me as they were opened to George Fox. Fox, after all, had read the Bible and knew it, supposedly, backwards and forwards. As I understand it, at some point what Fox was reading took on new meaning for him as he came in touch with the Spirit that gave forth those words.

In my case, however, it's new for me even to read a passage from the Bible, let alone get in touch with any Life or Power that gave forth The Word.

It so happens that I started being more curious about certain parts of Scripture because of my encounters with Friends--either in print or through conversation. For example, while reading a number of pamphlets, texts, and online essays, I began to see how references to the Bible were adding weight and dimension to the points the authors were wanting to make, whether about Quaker practice or as a metaphor to make a concept clearer.

I saw how Quaker bloggers were linking to a Bible search engine when they quoted Scripture. I began to see that the writing of Scripture was not all about who begat whom, or what sinister army was destroyed by what God-anointed one.

And most important of all, no one was forcing me to read and quote Scripture. I was discovering it for myself.

It's been like drops in a bucket. At first, I could hardly tell that anything was accumulating from the few references I had come across in my reading. But since I've kept on reading, and since I've kept on having conversations with Friends who are familiar with Scripture, well, I've kept on coming across and hearing about references to Scripture.

It was this most recent First Day, though, when I looked in my bucket... and saw that yes indeed, water was collecting there.

Over the two-and-a-half years or so of worshiping in the worship group, a few Friends there have been sharing parts of Scripture as it relates to their own spiritual journey and daily struggles. I have never felt threatened by these comments; it has always been clear to me that within the worship group, the Bible holds power, meaning, and Life for some of these Friends.

It's also probably no coincidence--it's actually probably God's doing--that the worship group has been meeting in a church's fellowship room, where there are a number of Bibles on a bookshelf. On a couple of occasions of late, one Friend or another has pulled a Bible off the shelf, looking for something in particular to share with the rest of us.

And then for some reason, this past First Day, when one Friend spoke about how twice in two weeks he has reflected on the parable of the sower, I found myself wanting to understand why that parable spoke to this Friend in the way that it did.

I cared about the Friend too much to not read what was speaking to him, and so after worship, I approached the Friend and asked where I might find that parable in the Bible. He pulled a Bible off the now-familiar shelf, quickly found the passage for me, and then excused himself to tend to his family's needs.

When I got home, I looked up the passage again, this time online, and read beyond the specific parable to which the Friend had referred. It was an added bonus, then, to come across the admonition against putting a lamp under a bowl, and the importance of "using our measure" (Mark 4:21-25). Here in one short section of the Bible were two essential "advices" of Quakerism:

1. that we not hide our light under a bushel; and

2. that we live up to the measure of Light we have been given... and even more will be granted us.

As a result of this emerging curiosity about Scripture, now I'm going to have to consider whether or not to get the booklet that has the Bible studies from the 2005 Gathering, since they are written by Thomas Gates, whose pamphlet on the functions of meeting had spoken so deeply to my condition...


January 27, 2006

AFSC's Eyes Wide Open in music video

Although another Quaker blogger has already posted about this music video, I decided to go ahead and do the same. To find out more about the involvement of the American Friends Service Committee in this video, take a look at this page from the AFSC website.


January 21, 2006

Queries from Contemplative Scholar

Over at Embracing Complexity, Contemplative Scholar has posted important queries about Quaker disillusionment.

Here is an excerpt of the comment I had left in response:

...I have been searching for words and experiences that point to the spiritual void I have been experiencing among some Friends. But how do we see something that is not there? What is it that we are pointing to when we are pointing to a gap, to an absence, to something that is missing?

This morning I am reviewing my dog-eared, uber-underlined copy of Thomas Gates' pamphlet Members One of Another, and have found a couple things there that speak to my condition and help me see the invisible void:

p. 14 "Is being accepted by others all there is to being a Friend?"

My answer to that is, No. And Gates goes on to explain about the place of shared values, the expectation to be transformed by the Light, the discipline of supporting others to be obedient to the Spirit, etc.

p. 24 "Mature meetings recognize that some of their members may at times require more than a sense of belonging and shared values, and that the community's responsibility has now moved beyond hospitality and acceptance..."

But what about meetings that are not mature?!

Here is what I am weighing:

Meetings that are not mature may not have the capacity to be able to say, "We do not know how to help you, Friends, with your questions. But let us seek together, worship together, and perhaps we will find others who can help with your questions and with your spiritual hunger...."

I sense I am now left with the questions:
What makes a meeting mature?


Who gets to decide if a meeting is mature or not?
Oh dear.


January 20, 2006

Jade and the gestalt of Quakerism

Over on Consider the Lilies, Rob has a post about a crisis of faith tradition. In that post, he refers to Lloyd Lee Wilson's comment about how Quakerism is a gestalt, a whole of a thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained completely merely by studying its segments.

In the last week or so, prior to reading that post, I had been wondering myself about the Quaker gestalt and how to make sense of it. What makes a gestalt a gestalt? Why is Quakerism so hard to talk about, so hard to teach? Since we understand that Quakerism has its subtleties, why can't we just explain what those subtleties are and how to look for and listen for them...?

Over the same past few days, for seemingly no specific reason, I began to recall a story--perhaps it is Buddhist?--that I had read about a year or so ago, about a student wishing to seek some Answer from the student's wise teacher. The question was probably something like, How can I tell Truth from false truths?

In the story, which I admittedly only loosely recall, the student is first given the task to learn how to distinguish jade from other stones, and then the Answer will be given. Learning such a skill takes a very long time, of course.

The teacher places the student in a room, and each day, for many days, day after day, the teacher gives the student a piece of jade to study. The teacher says nothing, just leaves the student with the stone and returns at the end of the day to retrieve the stone, perhaps also to hear the observations made by the student.

Each morning, the teacher returns and gives the student another piece of jade to study. Each evening, the student shares what was noticed and observed of the stone with the teacher.

Day after day, the teacher returns and the routine is repeated. The student receives another stone, studies it. At night, the teacher returns, listens to the student's observations. And so it goes.

One morning, many days, or days after days, or months later, the teacher again returns to the student and gives the student yet another stone.

But before the teacher can turn and leave the room, the student calls out sternly to the teacher:

Teacher, why have you given me this stone? It is not jade!
And the teacher replies, "And so you have your Answer."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In the same way, I believe, it is hard to speak of what Quakerism is or isn't; it is difficult to convey our faith to others through words. And yet it is important to find a way. Maybe talking about the difficulty in doing so is part of the answer.

As a faith tradition, Quakerism is perhaps best passed onto others through an immersion experience, like learning to live in another culture or learning a second language. The gestalt of Quakerism might best be learned through keen observation and through sharing Quakerism in a variety of contexts with a variety of seasoned Friends, day after day, month after month, year after year. In that way, the faith may be acquired in addition to being learned.

Bill Taber talks about Quakerism as being "caught" rather than "taught."

It is unlikely that Quakerism can be learned only by sitting in worship, or only by attending religious education classes, or only be reading of it in books, blogs, and journals. It is unlikely that Quakerism can be learned only by interacting with Friends within one's own meeting or by reading only one Quaker author. It is unlikely that Quakerism can be taught by exclusively applying the Testimonies to hypothetical situations, by only discussing the branches of the Quaker tree, or by only reading the epistles of George Fox.

To do any of these in isolation and declare we know Quakerism would be like eating a walnut and proclaiming we know the ins and outs of the walnut tree.

Quakerism is a culture of a particular faith tradition; Quakerism is a gestalt of multigenerational experiences, beliefs, and witness. We must therefore have a variety of experiences within Quakerism to know it intimately and to know the Living Presence intimately through one another.

Hungry to know what a deep Quakerism is, perhaps we must each sit with a teacher, be handed a simple stone of our faith, study it, observe it, and share what we notice at the end of the day, only to be given another stone to study.

At the end of our long, contemplative study, perhaps we will have our Answer.


P.S. If someone has a resource for the jade story, I would appreciate knowing about it.

UPDATE: Another Quaker blogger touches on the related concepts of Quaker identity and being connected to a particular gestalt. In her own post, Anna writes about the Maori concept of whakapapa as it relates to her Quaker heritage and to her sense of Who She Is.

January 18, 2006

I should have known I was Quaker

Over at Showers of Blessings, Paul L has a post that includes a list of statements that complete the phrase, You might be a Quaker if...

I appreciate the reality check from Paul as well as from the pastor of Freedom Friends Church who wrote that list: The list was created as an outreach tool for seekers and inquirers who wanted to learn more about who Quakers are and isn't intended for describing the deeper layers of Friends.

Being the Quaker that I am, I started wondering what would my own list say; what might I have to say about being Quaker. But when I started considering that question, this other line of thinking emerged instead.

So, here's my first list. I'm calling it, I should have known I was Quaker because...

I should have known I was Quaker because...

  • Being honest was more important to me than being liked.

  • Dressing in comfortable clothes was more important than being pretty.

  • When I was in first grade, my answer to "What do you want for Christmas?" (!) was that I wanted peace.

  • I was a horrible in debates because each side always said something I believed in.

  • Doing something that felt right was more important to me than doing something that had simply always been done.

  • Doing something that felt right was more important to me than doing what my mother told me.

  • Being happy and fulfilled was more important to me than having money and a career.

  • Taking time to find a worthy solution to a difficult situation was more important to me than giving a quick answer now and figuring out how to clean up the mess later.

  • I always believed I could be more than who I was at the time; I just didn't know how to get there on my own.

  • I always believed that others had more potential and magnificence in them than they themselves believed. I just didn't know how to help them get there.

  • It's not about doing the right thing, or doing the thing right. It's about doing the right thing right.

  • Blessings,

    UPDATE: See this related post, 10 reasons why I'm Quaker

    Eighth Month 2010: Here's a post on why I'm still a Quaker.

    January 15, 2006

    Another piece of the puzzle

    The other night I went to a fFriend's house to help her with a difficult section of a jigsaw puzzle she was working on. The Friend had already invited several others to work on it with her during the week; now it was my turn.

    Of course by the time I got to work on the puzzle, only the most difficult part of it was left for us to do: blue alpine sky; blue-white mountain tops that faded into blue-white clouds; blue-green spruce trees that disappeared into a blue-green valley.

    What I noticed as we worked patiently side-by-side was that by paying attention to the smallest details--a tip of a tree on this piece; a subtle change in color on that piece--as more and more pieces were put into place, more details and distinguishing subtleties of the remaining look-alike pieces could be seen.

    We were becoming less overwhelmed by the apparent sameness of things with which we had started.

    It occurred to me as I was headed home that night, that with clearness comes more clearness. Sometimes when we focus on the cloudiest, foggiest parts of our life, and tend to them with diligence, patience, and help, we can begin to see subtle variations and tiny shifts of forward movement...

    The in-breaking of Light through the fog.


    January 8, 2006

    For the love of Quakerism

    Over on Lorcan's blog, Plain in the City, there is an important post--and a great many comments--about the potential divisiveness about speaking the name "Jesus" and other Christian language used among Quakers.

    The more I sat with Lorcan's post and all of the comments, the more I pondered what it is that I may have to say. The more I worked on crafting a comment, the more I felt I wanted to lift up some of my own experience. So here it is.

    First of all, what comes across to me is that making our faith public to non-Quakers is one thing, but when we make our faith public to other Friends, we begin to discover that we don't necessarily agree with one another about what Quakerism means or how it might be practiced. Not just worship but all of it: spiritual discernment, testing leadings, mutual accountability, yielding and staying low...

    Having lived with and labored over some of these concerns during the past 2-3 years, here is the current understanding I have:

    In the end, we all wish to belong, to feel safe. And we all have a drive to protect and nurture what we love.
    In this case, "what we love" is the experience we know as our Quakerism. And each of us experiences it, practices it, and defines it differently, thereby potentially dividing us.

    But it's not just the name Jesus and related Christian theology that potentially divides us. It's also the belief and the unbelief in God that we have that may split the Religious Society once more.

    And I would say again, as I labor with Friends, that it is in the loving of Quakerism that we are, in part, united.

    Having said that, and because of references within Lorcan's post and related comments about Friends who leave their meetings, let me confess that I am one of those Friends who has been slowly moving away from my own monthly meeting. My movement is largely related to this "united in love, divided by difference" theme.

    I wouldn't say that the meeting is divided over Jesus' name. I wouldn't say that use of Jesus' name began to rub me the wrong way as an individual, despite my upbringing. I wouldn't even say that it was the growing visibility of nontheist Friends or the challenges they bring and how we all might labor with one another in seeking the Truth.
    [ASIDE: I have to say about the essay linked to "the challenges they bring": for the more God-centered Friend, this essay on "religious skeptics" is worth reading--especially when read without getting "hooked" into debating each point. This essay has opened me unexpectedly... -Liz]
    My backing away--or heading towards something more fulfilling, depending on how you look at it: the glass half-full or half-empty--is in part a result of one meeting's desire to embrace both a God-based faith-and-practice of Quakerism and a nontheistic faith-and-practice of Quakerism.

    Now, I didn't disappear from the monthly meeting just because I recognized my growing dissatisfaction and rising concern. There had been no single precipitating incident within the meeting that I would describe as unpalatable.

    Instead, as I became aware of my uneasiness, I sat with the concern, desiring to understand what was getting under my skin. I talked about it with others within and outside of the meeting community. I held my relationship with the meeting in the Light. Eventually I requested a discernment committee to help me understand my relationship to the meeting and to let M&C know that something was amiss for me.

    (One of the gifts of this process was that I learned experimentally what is meant by being released or not being released by the Spirit. God had not released me then in my participation in the meeting. I could have left, but I did not feel released.)

    It is only in retrospect that I can reframe what was going on during that committee time, which lasted several months. It is only in retrospect that I can see what it was that united those of us on the committee, despite our differences in belief, our differences in how we individually viewed my concern, and our differences in how we felt about the life and direction of the meeting.
    What united us was love for our individual experience of Quakerism.
    True: I still disagree with most Friends about the state of the meeting, and I now see my concern being based in what happens when secular individual freedoms intersect that with traditional Quaker religious practice.

    Putting these various pieces together, it seems as though our shared desire as Friends to protect the Quakerism we love is expressed in at least two ways:
    Emphasis on the individual experience: "Quakerism is our religion and any of us can believe or not believe what we want. Our shared experience is primarily worship."

    Emphasis on the corporate experience: "Quakerism is a shared practice of seeking and finding the Light together. Our individual experience is primarily living faithful lives."
    And still: What unites us as Friends is that individually and corporately, we love our Quakerism and what it provides us. And we will safeguard that which we love.

    Now, two years after that discernment committee was laid down, I have come into greater acceptance that many Friends in the monthly meeting are nourished by the above emphasis on the individual experience of Quakerism; that they grow because they have room to believe or not believe in God.

    And yes, I have concerns about a Quakerism that is skewed so heavily toward the individual. It is a spiritual concern that I have carried for a number of months now and have written elsewhere, for example about the slippery nature of our corporate faith.

    I don't yet know or understand how to prevent my love of Quakerism from being in conflict with someone else's love of Quakerism. But I still believe in the transformative nature of the Light, however it is defined.


    Throughout writing and revising this post, and for a time before this topic was ever lifted up by Lorcan, I have had this story of Solomon recur to me:
    Two women come before King Solomon with a baby, each claiming to be the mother. Solomon orders the baby be cut in half. One woman is prepared to accept the decision, but the other begs the king to allow the baby to live and to give the child to the other woman.