April 28, 2005

Theological unity and spiritual diversity

For some time now, I have been at a crossroads in my Quaker journey. On the one hand, I have come to accept that one of the ministries of the monthly meeting that holds my membership, is its openness to a broad spectrum of spiritual diversity among its worshipers. On the other hand, I have come to greater clearness—and also greater acceptance—that I am likely not to thrive in the life of the meeting because of its broad spiritual diversity.

This isn't exactly anything new that I'm relating here. But there is an image, a message, that has been wanting to be shared around similar thoughts, and I have been waiting for an opening to do so.

A tale of two natures

During an adult education program earlier this spring, about the Conservative-leaning worship group that has been established in the area, a number of Friends within the monthly meeting recalled fondly the days when they themselves were part of a smaller meeting or rural worship group, one in which Friends knew one another more deeply, "where everybody knows your name."

Towards the end of the hour, I recall that one Friend expressed her appreciation of the monthly meeting's variety of belief and spirituality that exists within it; that such variety is a blessing for her and others. Maybe she said that the spiritual variety enriches one's life, just as nature needs its biodiversity in order to thrive; and there is learning and an exchange of ideas that occur as a result of the diversity.

I recall that many Friends nodded in agreement. I also concurred, as far as nature's need for biodiversity goes. And it's true that God speaks to us through many vehicles, and all are needed.

Inwardly, though, I knew that the spiritual diversity of the meeting had been in essence creating a drought in my personal meadow: I had needed something different in order to thrive, and I had discovered a spiritual care in the worship group that brought healing water to my roots...

My recollection is that towards the end of her comments, the Friend—gentle in spirit and deeply caring in her soul—then asked those of us from the worship group:

Is there a danger for your group in having a unity of belief, a unity of theology?

In this question I am aware of a series of underlying cautions, that unity of belief is bad because it is insular; a unity of belief that is insular is dangerous because it is rigid; and a rigid, insular unity of belief can lead to a single, unquestionable creed that can be (and has been) used to oppress, disempower, persecute.

But just as quickly as came the awareness of possible cautions, so too came the awareness that inwardly, my heart was weeping. Not because of the cautions, but because in that moment, I felt I was horribly misunderstood. I wanted Friends to understand that for me, my learning has not been restricted because of the unity of belief within the worship group; my learning in fact has been enhanced in a different way because of the openness and commitment there is among us to seek the Spirit together!

Creeds and spectrums

And so I am aware of the intersection of both things: (1) It is true that if a shared understanding of belief, a theological unity is codified into a creed, it certainly could kill the spirit rather than lift up the Life out of which the unity originally grew, especially over the generations that follow. And (2) It is also true that if there is too broad a spectrum of belief—a theologically permeable membrane around the community of worshipers—eventually the Life out of which the acceptance was initially encouraged will draw in practices and beliefs that have little to do with the core of the Religious Society of Friends.

My understanding is that Friends have no creed because our direct experience of the Living Spirit and of our continuing revelation cannot be summarized or anticipated by a single statement of faith. The lack of a creed does not mean that "anything goes," though. As with many dualities in Quakerism, like the balance between the prophetic and the practical, and between the individual and the meeting community, there probably needs to be a balance struck between bringing out the welcome mat and showing folks the property lines: Yes, all are welcome to worship among us; and no, not all of us may be easy with coming under the discipline of the meeting, whether that discipline be loose or firm.

Be fully who we are called to be

I don't recall how the Friend's specific question was responded to at the time of the adult education program, but what I do recall is how the Spirit moved through me a few hours later that afternoon, during the worship group's regular meeting for worship, as I reflected on the events of that morning.

From my journal:

Third Month 2005

It is true that we [in the worship group] all freely profess our belief in the Divine, and our belief that if we listen, we can hear the Guidance and Instruction that God would have for us (God or Jesus or Christ or Great Spirit or...)

Yet I believe it is also true that we shall be called to respond with great Love if one among us expresses a perspective that at first blush appears contrary to the Light.

And yet my mind was not [made] clear; I was not satisfied. And again the question did rise for me as I sat in worship. And this time, I sat myself aside and I attended deeply so that I may understand.

At first I was shown a meadow with wildflowers, and I thought I was being shown the monthly meeting of which the original Friend spoke, with each Friend being represented by each flower, and also the diversity of life as sustained by the biodiversity within the meadow.

I expected next to see a rose garden, with the same rose repeated over and over again—a unity of belief—but this was not to be.

Instead I was shown the center of an enormous seed head of a sunflower. Hundreds of seeds packed tightly together, dense and seemingly uniform.

And I was made to understand that God does not ask the sunflower to be a rose; God does not ask the sunflower seed to be a rose hip. God asks for the sunflower to be completely a sunflower; the sunflower seed to be completely a sunflower seed. And the sunflower would not exist if the sunflower seeds did not congregate around their completeness, their wholeness and fullness of their being sunflower seeds, a unity of their deepest essence.

If I do not go as fully as I can into my faith and belief in the Spirit, I will disallow the sunflower from reaching the Light. But neither must I insist that the coneflower seed be a sunflower seed or the rose hip be a grass head. For
that is the danger in unity of belief, to restrict the freedom to be faithful in being fully who we are called to be.

And in that freedom, so is the meadow made healthy and alive.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


At the time of the adult education program, I did not originally speak with the Friend who posed the question about unity of belief. Preparing this post prompted me to do so, and I'm glad I did. When I asked her about the intent behind her question, the Friend replied she truly meant for the question to be given a fair amount of thought; that she had no hidden agenda in asking it.

She and I had a delightful exchange, then, about the developmental need to have safe spaces in which to process, decompress, express ourselves freely, and gain support before re-engaging in the larger world. Also, we share the concern that at some point in our journey, if we remain insular to the point of being separatist, we run the danger of staying stuck in our thinking, not allowing more Light into our lives.

We ended the conversation:
Me: I find it ironic that as spiritually diverse as the monthly meeting is—which many Friends like—I am too God-oriented for it.

Her: Well, Liz, it makes sense that the meeting may be too eclectic for you!
Perhaps next time I'll be ready to ask the question:

Is there a danger for your group in having so much variety of belief, so much variety of theology?


April 21, 2005

God is a monster with claws

The Conservative-leaning worship group of which I have been a part has been helpful to me during some tender times in my Quaker journey, just to have a small community of Friends who share an understanding of God's relation to why we do what we do--in worship, as we seek good order, etc.

The fellowship we have, with 3 kids under the age of 4, has likewise been very tender and enriching. Since my brothers have no kids and my brother-in-law's daughter lives in Florida, where my partner and I visit once a year, I've never had the Opportunity to be part of a kid's life in this way, to watch them go through teething, taking their first steps, babbling, saying their first words... It's rewarding and a small miracle when one or two of the children recognize me--me! a grown-up who is not their parent!--when I step into their home and they smile at me, or even ask me to play with them. Wow.

These kids are keeping me honest about my God-talk in a subtle, new way. For example, Emily who turns 4 in June talked about her experience on the playground while the adults were in worship. When the kids joined us later for open sharing and reflection, Emily declared most definitively that she was "chased by a monster with claws" (the "monster" was one of the adults who was providing childcare). Out of the blue, one Friend asked her: How do you know it wasn't God? and she answered, "Because it had claws and was a monster!"

Then another adult asked the same young Friend, "Is it possible that God could have claws and chase you?" She didn't know what to make of that, so I turned to the older Friend and asked him, "Have you experienced God chasing you with claws?" to which he replied he had, in fact.

The conversation was fun and light, but there was of course some ministry and spiritual fellowship going on, too. I loved it!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A very few seconds later, I recalled a phrase I first saw in a Thomas Kelly pamphlet. I asked the worship group, "Didn't Thomas Kelly write about something, "the hound of heaven"? The phrase was familiar to most of us in the group, and since then I've found Kelly's pamphlet Holy Obedience online. Among other quotes from this William Penn Lecture of 1939 is this one:

The Hound of Heaven is on our track, the God of Love is wooing us to His Holy Life.

Yes, I love that image of an all-compassionate God, using Pure Love to draw us into obedience, gently and unavoidably, as we are ready...

Also there is this longer quote:

The Hound of Heaven is ever near us, the voice of the Shepherd is calling us home. Too long have we lingered in double-minded obedience and dared not the certainties of His love. For Him do ye seek, all ye pearl merchants. He is "the food of grown men." Hasten unto Him who is the chief actor of the drama of time and Eternity. It is not too late to love Him utterly and obey Him implicitly and be baptized with the power of the apostolic life.
(For the poets out there, the phrase "hound of heaven" apparently comes from Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven.)

Yes, I do believe there are times when God feels like a monster with claws, hounding me. But God hounds me only when I am not being diligent, when I am being stubborn or simply dense, and I cannot hear the Call.

...There are times when just a whisper or a tickle is all that is needed to awaken me; and then there are times when I must be hounded and haunted, so that I may be returned to this, the Holy Life.


April 17, 2005

Activism and being faithful

Over at Ruthie-Annie, I made a comment to her post about what it means to live an integrated life. In the comment, I wrote, "As a Quaker, activism and being faithful are one and the same."

Another reader and fellow Quaker blogger asked me to explain what I meant, which I found has been hard for me to do directly. What I'll do instead, then, is to give you the story and situation of when I made this remark, and perhaps by way of context, the meaning will become clearer.

A group of LGBTQ Friends and allies were finishing up another tender Meeting for Worship recently. This particular group has been convening a monthly MfW for a number of months now, in light of Minnesota's push for an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. A few Friends in this group are very eager to jump into the political and legislative arena, and some have already contacted legislators, written a personal letter to their families and friends, made plans to attend the annual political rally that happens at the capitol, &c.

At the close of worship, we began to check-in about how we each were doing, given the political climate at the time. The more we shared our feelings about the turn of events in the state, the more agitated a number of us became: "There's so much to do!" "If I don't do it, I don't know who will!" "We're really the canaries in the mine shaft: many other groups are going to be affected down the road, and everyone's keeping their eyes on us and on this proposed amendment to see how toxic the political environment is..."

Since I'm not called to be politically active, I've learned to let others have that time after worship to vent, seek support, and build coalitions. If I add anything to this part of the discussion and sharing, it's usually around how to work within the life of the meeting, to lift up our concerns to the body, in the hopes that the meeting will get under the weight of them, and that straight Friends may come to understand more of what, as straight allies, is helpful to us.

For some reason, though, tonight was different. After listening for awhile, I interjected myself into the conversation. I think I started off by saying, "Y'know, there is something different about us in this group tonight than in other GLBTQ communities in Minnesota. We are Quaker, and that means something. It occurs to me that one of things it means is that our faithfulness to the call of the Spirit is what guides where we put our energies and how and where and when we are 'active.' I feel like I am being faithful to the leading I've been given around how to respond to this issue. If I let myself stray from my leading, I cannot be successful in my activism, and I have to trust that other Friends are also being equally faithful in following their leadings around this issue. For Friends, activism and being faithful are one and the same."

Most people (including myself, not too long ago!) would look at what I'm pursuing and wonder how that is being an activist, because it doesn't involve legislative work, protests, or letter writing. But when I understand and recognize that I am being faithful to the Spirit, well, that in and of itself is a form of activism.

Indeed: I feel the good raised up in me when I am faithful.

Delays in new posts due to Blogger


It may be a while before I can post anything significant. I have several drafts in the works, some in response to your comments made elsewhere, but Blogger is having problems, apparently, with allowing users to access their drafts. At least, such is the report they have on their website, and such is the case I've been experiencing today (17 April 2005).

Hopefully, you'll see more of me here in the near future.


April 13, 2005

My Friendly journey with Christ

For about a week or two, I have considered writing about how my understanding of the word "Christ" has shifted: it feels like a quiet part of my Quaker journey that remains in the corners where the cobwebs gather, awaiting a good cleaning in order to be noticed. The idea of writing about this inward shift and continued revelation has been growing, and then I came across a post from Brandice, that includes her own thoughts about Christ in Quakerism.

My life turned to other things, and so I was kind of caught off guard when I pulled up the same post from Brandice again, realizing I had gone as far as creating a draft of something to post but hadn't yet. Even writing this introduction points either to my resistance to gathering the cobwebs for you, or to my fear of "What would it mean for me to share this bit of my Quakerism and spiritual journey...???" (Yipes!) I am amazed at how much I don't want to post this, and yet Brandice's comments makes me squirm with the familiar sense that I may have something to say...

First, let me start with this: I was raised in a Jewish household. Is it any wonder that I squirm when I realize I am called to speak about my understanding, then, of Christ?

Next, let me move to the end: I am at a place in my Quakerism and in my spiritual faith where I have come to understand that "Christ" is that Divine Principle that existed long before a carpenter named Jesus was born and will exist long after all of us are dead. For me, Christ is neither the teacher Jesus nor the spiritual figurehead of Lord and Savior. Christ is another name for the concept of the Living Presence, the Seed, the Light.

I did not come to this understanding easily, and I do not share this part of my story comfortably. Having been raised a Jew, I was exposed to the sentiment that Jews believe one set of things—there is one God; there are laws in place to sustain the Jewish people; etc.—and Christians believe another: Jesus is the Messiah; the only way to salvation and to enter into heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior; etc. In subtle ways, I was taught to retreat a bit from someone who spoke of their "Christ-ianity," and I was fearful of anyone who asked me if I had been saved: Would I have to out myself as a Jew? Memories follow me to this day of being berated and ridiculed by classmates who were raised in Christian households.

As an attender to Quaker meetings for worship, then, and even as a new member among Friends, I was among those who cringed inwardly (if not outwardly) at the use of the word Christ during vocal ministry. The words Christ, Messiah, Jesus, and Savior hinted at the doubt lurking within myself, wondering if I truly was meant to be among Friends. Yet at the same time, I felt very much a part of Friends, and I disliked the implication (one I had created for myself, mind you) that worshippers who used outward Christ language were really wanting folks like me to step away...

My inner conflict became a bit more intense, but not overpowering, after entering into my relationship with my partner Jeanne. She occasionally read the New Testament and infrequently would say something about her experience in church growing up. How could Jeanne and I both be Quaker when she had a faith in Jesus (Christ or otherwise) and I had a faith in God?

I never pushed for answers to that question; I seldom broached the subject with Jeanne. Over time, she established some dear friendships with a few Friends whose progressive Christian Quakerism meshed well with her own, and they later started up a Bible study for a few months. I ended up establishing some of my own cherished relationships among Friends who, like Jeanne, had a deep yearning to be faithful but didn't couch that yearning and that Spirit in terms of Christ.

At some point, I had come across Lloyd Lee Wilson's book, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, and a fire was lit within me: a huge part of this smallish book spoke to my condition--and I could ignore the obvious chapters that dealt with Jesus Christ, the New Testament, etc. But the parts of his book about covenant community, gospel order, spiritual discernment all rang true for me, and it was not tied up in the notion of one particular spiritual-slash-human being named Christ. I created a book study group to focus on the chapters that most appealed to me because I was hungry to share and spread the Truthfulness that I found within its pages, but the greatest enlightenment for me came from something a Friend in the group shared.

This Friend had said something about Christ meaning more than a reference to an extraordinary individual from 2,000 years ago. Christ in fact meant, according to this Friend, that Principle that is borne within us—and has been over the generations of existence—that, when tapped, can guide us into right order with all creation.

Having heard that Friend's witness, I felt something shift inside me. My body tingled with its own response to Truth; a space opened within me. Someone had innocently freed me of the rigid interpretation of Christ that I had grown up with. Here was a definition that did not exclude me from a faith community in which I was participating; but rather was congruent with some of my own secret thinking:

If there is a single Jesus Christ, then why can't there be a single Liz Christ or Martin Christ or Robin Christ...? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly unique? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly beloved children of God?
I've kept these newer thoughts to myself until now, but the Light I had experienced at that particular book study session changed how I would receive the vocal ministry offered by other Friends thereafter, as they spoke about Jesus being with them, or Christ loving them tenderly. I could at last listen for the Spirit encapsuled by the words, and no longer cringe or retreat.

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

As I sit with this post before publishing it, I understand that God does not so much care about how I come to know God, whether it is through Jesus, through Adonai Elohim, through Allah, or even through sobriety. It matters not how I name this Unnameable Presence, or even if I name it. What matters is that I have come to know it experimentally. I know it as my body knows my breath; as my heart knows my blood. There are specific incidents in my life I could tell you, but those stories are for another time, another post...

I once heard a voice inside me during a meeting for worship about 18 months ago. It said:
It does not matter whether you are liked or not. What matters is that you are faithful.
Thanks for reading me.


April 11, 2005

Good conversation while I'm away

Friends, while I've been traveling, there is a rich conversation going on at the Quaker Ranter, about one Friend's description of his nontheist Quakerism. These are the sorts of dialogues that may grow all of us, if we can remember to stay grounded in our search for "capital T" Truth.

I wish I could write more, but it will have to wait until me and my computer are reunited. Smile.


April 3, 2005

Paradox of Faith:
The more rooted we are, the greater the peace

A few years ago, I learned that peace is more likely to be created if we are firmly rooted in our faith than if we compromise our faith in the hope to achieve peace. I learned about this faith paradox by listening to the compelling personal stories that were coming out of a small village in Israel, Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam.

[As I started typing this post, I noticed on the website that there is a U.S. speaking tour this month with two residents of the village, between Philadelphia and Boston. If you can get to one of the events, I highly recommend changing your schedule to do so!]

It is important to me to say and type the entire name of the village, which translates "Oasis of Peace" from the Hebrew and Arabic respectively, and not to Americanize it by saying its English equivalent. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is a village and a community that is intentionally half Jewish Israeli and half Arab Israeli. Of the Arabs, some are Muslim and some are Christian. Two years ago, I met the mayor of the village, Abdessalam [he is returning as part of the tour], and a young man who had just completed his military service in the Israeli army, Sagi. Abdessalam, his wife, and Sagi's parents were among the first to settle in the village, which is barely 30 or 40 years old. The stories that Abdessalam and Sagi told seemed to stem from their individual experience of reconciling intense anger and oppression by relying on their individual faith and faith-based values—and respecting those of their neighbors.

Sagi's and Abdessalam's visit to the Twin Cities drew hundreds of Christians, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, and anyone else who wanted to witness and hear about hope in the making. Their visit began just a few days I think after Iraq was invaded and long before Arafat was to fall ill. I had helped arrange the 4-day speaking tour, alongside a 13-year-old young Jewish woman, and many of us at the events were near tears as we heard story after story about Sagi's and Abdessalam's mutual experience of being able to walk the knife's edge between rage and respect; of being able to honor each other's beliefs while speaking openly and authentically about what was going on in their respective homelands of Israel and Palestine.

This deep respect for their religious differences, along with the solid mutual commitment to live peacefully in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, allows Jews, Muslims, and Christians to join in celebrating the holidays of each other's faith—because they encourage each other to continue practicing their own faith without fear of having to blend with one another or of having to worship in private.

It is not their individual spiritual or religious practices that bind them; it is their belief in, experience with, and commitment to Something Larger. Conflicts arise, like in any community, and there are tensions. But the community comes together to labor with one another, to learn from one another, and to witness one another in the process of healing and transformation. They truly are the village that the founder Bruno Hussar envisioned.


P.S. This story would be incomplete without my sharing how the Twin Cities speaking tour came about. I was surfing the net in my despair of what was happening after 9/11 and in the Mideast. I wanted to put my energy and financial donations to some non-political peacemaking effort. I must have Googled "peace jewish mideast," or some such string. I made my way to the website for Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, as well as to the organization that coordinates the speaking tours, American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam [no connection to Quakers... except the current executive director attends Quaker meeting from time to time, and the current board president is herself Quaker apparently].

I learned that American Friends did speaking tours, and I called them, wanting to know if I could talk with anyone from the midwest who had been to the village before I would send a donation, either to the village itself or to American Friends. I was put in touch with the executive director Deanna Armbruster.

When I explained what I was wanting to do and she found out I was in Minnesota, she told me not only did she grow up in a town 30 minutes from the Twin Cities; and not only was she just then trying to convince the board that it might be worthwhile to do a first-ever speaking tour in the midwestern United States; but that also she herself would be taking a vacation in the Minneapolis area in just two weeks! We made a plan to meet in person, since she had been to Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam for extended periods of time over the years, and she was eager to meet someone who was eager to learn more about the village who happened to live in the midwest.

Well, our lunch was a true Opportunity, in the Quaker sense of the word: the Spirit brought us together and moved among us during lunch, and we were changed as a result.

I was able to ask Deanna questions about oppression (of Palestinians among the majority culture of Jewish Israelis) and second-language learning (Hebrew being the dominant language; Arabic getting much less air time) and multicultural dynamics (identity development and related struggles when cultures and faiths clash); Deanna was able to address my questions without sugar-coating the answers: Yes, oppression is a real danger, which is why families have to go through an application process before they are accepted into the village. Yes, Hebrew is the dominant language in the village and in school, and the school is working to have an Arabic-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking teacher team-teach in each classroom... Yes, residents struggle with not blaming each other for the violence that is happening in Israel and the occupied territories; they all have to navigate what to do when violence escalates or when a child of the village is killed by a suicide bomber, for example, and one segment of the village wants a memorial built in town, while another segment doesn't. (I don't quite recall the exact incident, but I hope you get the picture.)

By the end of our lunch, I had freely offered to help coordinate a Twin Cities speaking tour. The tour was a huge success; Deanna and I still keep in touch; and now I am less afraid to learn about other people's faith, because I am so deeply committed to my own. And I learned the power and gift of that because of the people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam.

P.P.S. If you do happen to get to one of the April 2005 events and you meet Abdessalam (the mayor of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam) or hear a red-headed American 30-something woman named Deanna introducing the speakers, I hope you'll especially approach them and tell them you read about them on this blog... and tell them that Liz, the Quaker from Minneapolis, misses them dearly and remembers them fondly.