April 28, 2008

It Happened One Night - A virtual interview with Brent Bill

It happened one night last week: I was finishing up a phone call with Robin M when she off-handedly asked me if I was doing the blog contest with Brent Bill. I had been so out of the blog loop for the weeks leading up to that point, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Robin explained to me that the Quaker author and fellow blogger was having a contest of sorts, to help promote his book, Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment. Robin pointed me to Brent's blog post that described the contest's parameters, which I took a peek at.

Then I briefly considered going to bed.

The thing is, the contest was scheduled to end that day. And I had hung up the phone with Robin at 11:10 pm.

Central time.

Maybe I still had a chance to squeak in under the wire... if midnight was relative in Brent's eyes.

What time did I say I wanted to get up in the morning...?! I had asked myself. Ah, well.

At 11:51 pm, Central Daylight Time, I emailed my five best, hurried-but-thoughtful questions to Brent, along with an explanation for my late entry and the request that even if my questions were received too late for the contest, could he answer them anyway, for my own satisfaction?

Brent was kind enough not only to answer my questions but also to include my literal eleventh-hour entry.

Before sharing the interview, I want to add that I chose not to look at the interviews that had already been posted by a number of fFriends (the list and links are included below).

I also chose not to beat myself over the head for not having read Sacred Compass, let alone any other Brent Bill book.

Instead, I've just made it a point to strike out on my own, having no clue what Brent's writing style is like, what he covers in his book, or what others are interested in asking.

Also, after receiving his answers, I found that I had a follow-up comment and question to one item in particular, so I've included a paraprhase of it--and Brent's additional response--within the flow of the interview itself.

My interview with Brent is below, though I've rearranged the order in which I originally asked the questions.

The Interview

Q. What was your first experience when you began to have an inkling about having an inner compass?
Hmmm, I was pretty young. I'd say 11-12. I wouldn't have called it a compass back then. But I did sense that God had things for me to do -- including what we Evangelical Friends called "full-time Christian service," which usually meant being a pastor or missionary.

Missionary didn't fit me -- so I assumed I'd be a pastor. Lots of things in my life led me toward that -- even when I resisted. But my heart/soul always seemed to be called back to following God and saying, "Okay, what do you want me to do." The same feeling I had as a kid.
Q. What trends have you noticed among contemporary Friends, either towards or away from the understanding of an Inward Teacher? Is there something that seems to move Friends toward a clearer understanding? away from it?
I think it depends on the type of Friends you're thinking about. Certainly, the more fundamentalist types of Friends seem to place so much emphasis on the Bible that they distrust even the idea of an Inner Teacher.

On the other end, some very liberal Friends place so much emphasis on the Inner Teacher that they forget that that Teacher can use external things such as the Bible to help guide us.

Both extremes are dangerous, I think, and we need to find a balance between Christ as Inner Teacher and Outer Teacher.
Q. I was raised in a Jewish household and am only recently beginning to appreciate Scripture and its place in contemporary Quakerism. Recently I've begun wondering if there are certain stories or passages in the Torah, the "first five books," that Quakers draw on for teachings--aside from "Love thy neighbor" and "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength..." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

It seems as if Quakers don't draw on the Old Testament in anywhere near the same proportion as we do with the New Testament, yet Jesus was Jewish.

I'm finding I want to hear from Quakers who are better versed than I in Scripture as to what elements of the Old Testament do Friends look to for guidance; and is there a reason we don't hear many Friends quote these [Hebrew] texts? (...or am I just worshiping in the wrong meeting?)
Well, I don't do much, I guess with Torah, but I have done a lot with the Jewish Bible.

I spend a lot of time in the Psalms, which seem to me to be the Quaker Old Testament book in the same way John is our New Testament go-to gospel.

The Psalms reveal the struggle to heed the Inner Teacher -- and to complain, seek, whine, rejoice, etc with the God who goes with and in us. The Psalms, to me, often sound a lot like Fox's Journal -- without all the Christ language.

I think too many of us Quaker-types stay away from the Old Testament because we don't know what to do with all the war and violence parts. Which is a mistake in no small part because Torah describes not just the ancient world but today's world -- and just possibly could provide some clues for how we should behold God in the living of our lives today.

Hmmm, perhaps that's one reason it's still being read by millions even to this day. LOL.
Q. What is one thing you are afraid or hesitant to tell other Quakers about yourself?
Ah, probably that I cuss too much. But then the Quakers who know me really well already know that. The older I get, the more transparent I'm trying to be.

That's much different for me than it was 20 years ago, when I felt like I had to present myself as pretty smart and spiritually deep. Which, of course, didn't work well! Though I've always tried say, "What you see is what you get" when it comes to presenting myself, I used to be pretty careful about how self-revelatory I was. I still am fairly private in some matters, I guess, but have gotten over the having to be perfect sort of ideal.
I'm stuck on this reply in particular, about one thing you are hesitant to tell other Quakers about yourself:

On the one hand, given what seems to be a common intersection between the secular world and contemporary Quakerism, I'm personally not surprised to learn that you "cuss too much."

On the other hand, if the perception you have of how others experience you is that you are... virtuous... morally superior...? (insert superlative adjective here), then it makes sense that there may be some trepidation in "getting off your own pedestal." Transparency, as you put it, helps with that, sure, and cursing can let someone know you have feelings and frustrations like the rest of us.

What I'm curious to know is, do you struggle to be seen and known as a "peer" within your meeting? Do you already experience a sense of "being known in that which is eternal," or is it something you yearn for? What gets in the way of being known deeply, and/or what seems to help?
Well, Liz, I'm not sure what others' experience of me is -- virtuous or not. I have certainly never consciously tried to set myself up in such a way that people might think I am "morally superior." If I have, it's a failing that I regret.

Somebody, recently, told me that they (and some others) considered me a weighty Friend. That thought really unnerved me -- so much so that I even hesitate to mention it. I don't see myself that way and it's not out of any false humility. I am well aware of my inadequacies of faith and practice. I am no paragon of piety and, while I hopefully am growing toward God, I am well aware that I've a long way left on that journey.

One of my greatest joys is that, in our little worship group, I'm considered just one member there, no more and no less important than any other. I hope, as a minister of writing (in particular), that I offer helpful words of spiritual significance, but if I do it's because the Spirit has worked in and through those words and they come through no virtue of my own.

One thing that I think is an obstacle of being known deeply, especially within the context of the faithful community, is the issue of trust. Transparency requires a certain level of trust even at its most basic level.

I think to be known deeply requires a deep level of trust, the sort of trust that is probably developed best in smaller worship-sharing groups than larger faith communities. Thus I feel pretty free to be completely transparent at the Friends in Fellowship group of 10-15 of us who meeting regularly, but less so at the local Friends meeting that I've attended (depending on where I lived at the time) off and on for almost 30 years (gosh am I that old????).

So trust, and enough spiritual maturity to finally realize it's not all about me (or even mostly about me), helps me be known.
Q. Given how much the secular world has crept into our Quaker faith--attending to busy schedules; watching the clock towards the "end" of Meeting for Worship; individualism; etc.--what two or three things of Quakerism might you wish would creep into the secular world?
I do wish that the idea of slowness would infect the secular world.

It seems to me that Quakerism, when done well, is faith going slow -- both literally and figuratively. Time is not of the essence in quite the same way in a Quaker meeting as at the local community church. We take time to slow our thoughts and souls and hearts. As we do so, we become more attentive to the life around us -- spiritual life, communal life, physical life. I think that's a good thing.

We're a sort of spiritual version of the "slow food" movement.
Slow soul food -- perhaps that should be our marketing slogan. If we could ever decide to market!

I hope the answers are okay. I tried to keep 'em short since it's a blog. They were really good and fun to wrestle with.

I hope to meet you in person some day.

I trust we'll meet someday, somewhere--most likely at a Convergent Friends dinner or panel discussion! And again, thanks, Brent, for the opportunity to be part of this exchange.

Now off I go to read the other bloggers' posts who have interviewed Brent!



Wess' interview
Lovin' Life Liz's interview
Shawna's interview
Robin's first post for her interview, posted over several entries
Brent himself has posted an interview with Jo Morgan, since Jo no longer blogs

Brent Bill's own page about his book Sacred Compass
An audio clip from the book's introduction
Podcasts that are read from the book: there is a link at this post of Brent's
Books about corporate discernment

April 21, 2008

Companions and encouragement

This past First Day, the worship group had a Friend speak with us about her experiences traveling to meetings and isolated Friends prior to and early in the establishment of Northern Yearly Meeting. Raquel spoke about the "inventiveness" of a youthful yearly meeting like Northern, going on 35 years old, as compared to the settledness (my word) of a well-established yearly meeting like Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative--approaching its 135th year.

She also encouraged us to consider writing a State of the Society report, if not for one yearly meeting or the other, then as an exercise for ourselves: it can be a way to take stock of where we are as a body and how the Spirit is moving among us.

Interestingly enough, the very subject of writing a "State of Society" has been part of a recent exchange between the past and current clerks of the worship group, given that we continue to look at the question of affiliation with a yearly meeting and how we might be helped to grow in the Light if we were accompanied by and connected to a larger body.

During the worship that followed, I found myself reflecting on something my partner and I had witnessed a week earlier, as we were walking along one of the many lakes in our area:

The lake still had a thin layer of ice on parts of it. Other areas near the shore had a slushy mix of ice, water, and vegetation. Near where we were, we noticed that a Canada goose was trudging through the slushy area and seemed to be having a difficult time of it.

Then we heard another single goose honking overhead, and it descended not far from the first, along the banks of a small island but in open water about a hundred yards away. The second goose began swimming slowly toward the first, letting out an occasional 'Onk! .... 'Onk! as it maneuvered on the outskirts of the ice floe that was separating the two.

The first goose laboriously picked up one webbed foot from the slush and then the other, unable to walk on the surface of the floe and unable to fly from it, either. But it was definitely headed in the direction from where the encouraging 'onks were coming.

And the second goose was slowly heading in the direction of the first, too.

We watched for several minutes, and finally the two geese were united with each other, free from the ice and slush of the lake's edge. A minute or two later, they flew from the lake and we continued on our walk.

It seems to me that in our own faith communities, we might call out to each other when we see a member of our community trudging through some difficulty. Even if at times we have to trudge through the emotional and spiritual slush of our lives on our own, we can be glad for the encouragement of our fFriends.

It seems to me that God calls to us and companions us, too, continuously and in love.


April 11, 2008

A working definition: Radical love

A Friend and I had been exchanging emails a short time ago around the concept of radical love and how one might define it. Such a task had been brought up on certain Quaker listserves and probably other places in the Quaker and non-Quaker blogosphere.

In light of the blogpost I wrote recently, coupled with the recent email exchange, I pressed myself for a definition of my own.

Radical love: The transformational element in my spiritual life that allows me to open my heart in a way that embraces, welcomes, and cherishes those who I had intentionally or unintentionally excluded from my life (or social group) in the past, those who I had somehow seen as "other" instead of seeing them as my brothers and sisters given to me by God.

Radical love goes beyond tolerance and beyond acceptance. And it often requires some sort of deep conversion experience or "a-ha!" moment within myself.
I feel as though there should be more, but this is where the understanding currently ends. I toyed with changing from first person singular to third person singular or even first person plurual (from "I, my, me" to "one, one's, oneself" or "we, our, us"), but I found it less powerful and less concrete.

By all means, play with what I've offered here and take a crack at putting your own thoughts into words. Sometimes we understand and can better articulate what we believe when we have something to push against or disagree with.


April 2, 2008

Two experiences of Meeting for Worship

As part of the ongoing discernment process of the worship group about where we might affiliate, we have begun a study of comparative readings between Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends. (Both of these branches worship in the unprogrammed manner of Friends.)

We're currently focused on parallel parts of Iowa Conservative's 1974 Book of Discipline and Northern Yearly Meeting's approved chapters of its first-ever Faith & Practice. This past week, we looked briefly at the sections on Meeting for Worship.

Though a number of us felt the two sections were "compatible," I myself noticed what for me are small-but-significant differences. Iowa's section mentions the Bible and refers to the Holy Spirit. There is also a brief explanation about the lack of outward sacraments:

The absence of outward rites and sacraments in Friends' worship is a result of our emphasis on the reality of the inward experience. Direct communion with God and the baptism of the Holy Spirit make the observance of rites unnecessary and even a hindrance to spiritual experience for some.
NYM's chapter, on the other hand, makes no mention of Scripture or the lack of ritual, possibly allowing for (or explaining?) the greater theological diversity among NYM Friends.

To NYM's credit, though, I appreciate the part within NYM's chapter on worship about vocal ministry:
Our Meetings for Worship go beyond private reverie. It is our experience that wherever two or more of us are gathered in expectant listening, the Spirit is in our midst. The quest for Truth among us is shared in community.
When I have experienced a gathered or covered meeting, it has felt to me like the worshipers have in fact "gone beyond private reverie" and have come into a sweetness and depth that is made all the more rich by the sense of having been yoked together in corporate worship and with the grace of the Presence...

But of course, reading about Meeting for Worship and experiencing it are two very different things, and no branch of Friends is immune from ever having a Meeting for Worship that feels disjointed.

What's timely about reading and reflecting on these passages about meeting for worship is that this past weekend, on two separate occasions, I experienced both a gathered meeting and a disjointed meeting.

On Saturday, a few of us went to the home of an aging Friend who can no longer get to the meetinghouse for worship. I would have expected us to fall into worship easily and deeply, uniting around our common fFriend, around a quiet celebration of being together. Instead, three of us fell asleep (or nearly so) and I had a hard time feeling connected or joined with the others in the Spirit. Maybe it was just too nice of a day to be inside; maybe it was just that I, and possibly others, couldn't transcend our "private reverie"...

The very next morning, though, I attended the earlier meeting for worship at the monthly meeting. Usually the group of worshipers numbers around thirty, with many more Friends going to the later worship, but this particular First Day morning, we numbered nearly fifty!

Over the last few weeks, many of us in the early MfW have been witnessing the decline of a beloved fFriend who, with his wife, has been attending meeting for many, many years but has consciously never pursued membership. This particular First Day, the fFriend was not there: we had received word that he had passed early on Saturday morning.

The thirty or so regular attenders, along with the additional twenty other worshipers, appeared to settle quickly and deeply into the silence. It was as if we were journeying together, continuing to accompany such a dear fFriend and his dear family, all the while being held and comforted by the Living Presence among us.

Away from the meeting, a Friend had recently remarked that as a worship community, we were united in our witnessing of the passing of a life. We were joined in our grief and we were truly holding one another up...

In that deep place, there had been more than a sense of individuals worshiping together, but a true sense of corporate worship, a movement that transcended each of our potential "private reveries" and instead united us, wordlessly, one unto another and all of us unto the Comforter.

When the Holy Spirit is felt by so many, what more can we do than take a few deep breaths and lean into the grace to accept every moment for what it is...