March 23, 2007

Tom Gates at the Weed Lecture

I like to tell people that a friend of mine from California invited me, who lives in the midwest, to join her at a lecture on the east coast in Boston.

I was glad I decided to make the trip, although my California friend, Robin, missed the lecture after all that. She had good reason, though, and it worked out since I ended up sitting with and talking to Will T, who I had met once before.

The annual Beacon Hill Friends House Weed Lecture was given by Tom Gates, a Pennsylvania Friend whose recent pamphlets have helped me understand a bit more about Scripture among Friends and have helped open me to a new way of thinking about membership.

So when Robin invited me to join her at the lecture and told me Tom Gates would be the speaker, I made an extra effort to get there. I found Tom to be articulate, grounded, tender, and meek in his manner, words, and presence. He was very open about acknowledging that his gift is not in speaking from the silence, and so he asked for forbearance as he read the comments he had written for the occasion.

"You Must Live a Dying Life": Reflections on Human Mortality and the Spiritual Life

The topic was a bit off-putting for me, though I hoped Tom's remarks would at least touch on John Woolman's revelation that "John Woolman is dead" (scroll to paragraph 19), which they did.

Here are some of the points that captured my attention, arranged more by theme than by where they fell in Tom's presentation. My own brief thoughts are included in small, italic print.

The experience of death:
Death can isolate us from one another and from God. It can unite us in our experience of dying and of caring for those who are dying.

Human mortality is central to our spiritual journey. I wish I had written more of his explanation about why this is so. Perhaps because as we approach death, we engage in a new part of our spiritual life...?

Being allowed to tell one's story about a loved one's death is important. So is being allowed to tell one's story about life and about being drawn closer to God.

Two important parts of dying are dying well and caring well--topics that are covered tenderly in a small book by Henry Nouwen. There is a trinity or triad of themes within Nouwen's book, both for dying well and for caring well, and the table of contents reflect that triad: being children of God; being brothers and sisters of each other; and being parents of generations to come.
Being children of God is about being dependent on God in life and in death.

Being brothers and sisters of one another is about experiencing joy in our shared humanity.

Being parents of generations to come is about bearing fruit, as reflected in the passage from Scripture about how the grains of wheat must die.
Care for the dying requires seeing them as beloved children of God. And, when we are less afraid of death ourselves, we care better for those who are dying.

QUERY: How can I live so that my life will bear fruit when I'm gone? ...This question forces us to change our paradigm, to move from a life of action to passion (from necessary activity to mindful joy?); and from pursuing success to pursuing fruitfulness.

Death as part of our spiritual journey:
In the field of medicine, the relationship between life and death is one-way: we move from life to death, not the other way round. In our faith journey, we move back and forth between spiritual life and spiritual death. It is not one-way.

In the New Testament is the verse "...I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." And in the Hebrew text, in Genesis 3, being cast out of the Garden of Eden is taken to be a form of death, being removed from the Tree of Life.

In our spiritual journey, we both turn away from God (life) and turn toward God (death). Turning back to God is something we can choose.

Meister Eckhart tells a story of a woman going down the street with a flaming torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When approached to ask what she is doing, she replies that she has the torch to burn the gates of Heaven and the bucket of water to put out the fires of Hell so that people may love God for God's own self, rather than out of fear of punishment or hope of redemption.

The Cross and death of the self:
Living under the Cross is akin to affirming our mortality--a dying of the self. Yes, yes!

George Fox wrote that we "must die in the silence, to the fleshly wisdom, knowledge, reason..." We must be transformed and be opened into the spiritual life.

Obedience and death of the self leads to a closeness to the secret of living closer to the will of God. Bill Taber referred to the daily Cross as "the Cross of joy."

Fox's own references to the Cross are often paired with the mention of the Power of God.

In summary, Tom closed his remarks by reading from the book Hope for the Flowers and paraphrasing its message:
We must be willing to give up who we are so we may become what is required of us.
Afterward, we settled into the Silence and a few Friends spoke of their own experience with death, dying of the self, and living a dying life. Right about that time is when Robin showed up...

A word about the Convergent Friends dinner

There were refreshments at the rise of our time together, and a number of us hung around, including Will T, Holly, Raul from El Salvador, Venderlin (sp?) who had arrived from Germany the night before (!), and Ben whose story I missed about traveling to Kenya as part of the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends. Eventually Jeffrey also came along, having brought Robin from the FWCC meetings in Providence, Rhode Island.

And THEN, after all that, about 14 of us made our way to the lovely house of Will and Lynn T, where we ultimately were joined by another four Friends, including Amanda and, I hear, Rob, who showed up shortly after I had left, which was well before Quaker midnight...

Dinner--with the typical Convergent fare of pizza and chocolate chip cookies--was fabulous, and though conversations were easy to come by, the difficulty is mine about how to lift up whatever it was that we all experienced. Still, a few things do linger with me:
  • The gentle presence of Venderlin, who had a round-about trip from Germany via Montreal before arriving in Boston the day before, a stranger to all of us at first, was eager to join us and we welcomed him into our hearts.

  • The amazing hospitality by Will T and his wife Lynn! Did any of us expect there would be eighteen of us crammed into a living room or dining room, just because a few of us knew one another via the internet? I pray I may be as calm and hospitable a presence when Convergent Friends and fFriends of Friends find their way to my place and fill my living room and dining room some day!

  • The shift to a bilingual mode of sharing in order to incorporate Raul into the conversation, especially after we had been gathered in order to consider some queries that were pulled together long ago by Wess Daniels and Robin M for a different occasion. At first one Friend was doing all the translation for Raul, from English to Spanish. But then, bit by bit, those of us who had some or "enough" Spanish would speak our piece bit by bit, first in English and then in Spanish, or vice versa, aware that as clunky as it was to do so, it seemed to help us move together with a bit more grace and intention. ..."caminando juntos," walking together.
  • Blessings,

    RELATED POSTS about the dinner that night:

    Amanda gives a brief overview of the event.

    Will T. reports as host of the Convergent Friends dinner.

    Robin chimes in and reminds us about her "crazy idea of fun."


    Robin M. said...

    I think the final count for the dinner was 26. I am still amazed. I look forward to reading this again when I have a little more time!

    Johan Maurer said...

    I find that I'm just as blessed by the loving work you put into writing and editing this post as I am by the words themselves.

    Embracing Enlightenment said...

    Hi Liz. Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. I really enjoyed reading this entry about the Convergent Dinner. It is nice to know so many came and it appears like everyone enjoyed themselves.

    As for the comments on my blog i am more than excited that people would take the time and give input. There is no concern with me being overloaded as I am working through things as they come up. The beauty of blogging is you can add as little or as much as you want when you want and also you have a running record of thoughts and book recommendations. I would be very blessed by hearing some of your book recommendations and your input on anything you want. Thank you for you help in the journey.



    Liz Opp said...

    Robin -

    WoW, 26 Friends...?!? I had better sharpen up on my counting skills! And I worry who I missed in my count, other than Rob. I hope I haven't offended anyone who was at the dinner and I inadvertently ignored or "discounted."

    Johan -

    Thank you for reading me and for taking the time to comment. If I've captured and conveyed an inkling of what Tom shared, I'm content.

    I should add that Beacon Hill Friends House publishes the Weed Lecture a number of months following the event, so look for it in the near future, probably at QuakerBooks of FGC.

    Kristen -

    I'm glad you dropped by and that you liked what I offered here about the post-FWCC dinner. And thanks, too, for clarifying your openness to receiving information as your readers are led to share it. You're right about the blog being a sort of "running record" of the conversation, etc. I know for me, though, that I can get overwhelmed with wanting to read, consider, digest, and reply to the comments I receive.


    Paul L said...

    Liz -- I'm sure I can wait for the published lecture, but I'm curious whether Tom talked about Death as one of the Powers against which we struggle? (If he did, it would have probably been in the section on the Cross.)

    I've been reading a lot of William Stringfellow recently, and just re-read John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, each of whom characterize Death as a demonic entity that is the soverign of fallen creation, and is the Power that Jesus defeated. (Stringfellow was an Episcopalian, and Yoder a Mennonite. Friend Walter Wink has also written extensively on this topic, though I've only read excerpts of his books.)

    They make a strong case that the Biblical, prophetic view is to think of Death as a Power more than as death as a mere fact of life.

    Liz Opp said...

    Hi, Paul -

    Tom did talk a bit about how we struggle against death, but I don't recall him talking about death as "one of the Powers..."

    It's been too long now for me to remember details he offered or the context in which he spoke about our great cultural resistance to death and dying. ...I can tell you that I don't have a recollection of Tom's personifying, demonizing, or deifying death in any way, such as a "demonic entity" or having "soveignty" over anything...

    Unless Will T or someone else can fill in the blanks, you'll have to read the pamphlet when it becomes available.

    Sorry I can't be better help than that.