November 30, 2010

God's manna

This past First Day found me in a very dark time... one of those moods where no spiritual Light could come in; where bad thoughts bred worse thoughts, and where neutral words of greeting from fFriends easily were twisted into evidence of self-worthlessness.

But as on most First Days when I'm in town, I had the opportunity to attend two Meetings for Worship. Even though something within me wanted to keep me home, I heeded the Something Deeper that told me to go and wait on the Lord in worship.

In the morning at the local monthly meeting, there were messages about joy in the midst of strife, and how to acknowledge the strife without minimizing it or becoming depressed because of it. In the afternoon at the worship group, I sank a bit further into the Seed and found myself reflecting on a number of topics:

  • What am I seeking right now?
  • If I find what I'm seeking, how will I be changed?
  • Remember to give up the difficulty to God so that God may see it through.
  • What do I need in order to be sustained?
The last question held my attention, and I thought about my ankle.

About five years ago, I started limping because of pain in my right ankle. I went to the doctor, who happened to have a background in sports medicine. All of my best medical treatment for any part of my body that was ailing me was provided by physicians who had a background in sports medicine, and this doctor didn't disappoint!

After a series of short, low-tech muscle tests in the exam room ("Hold your leg up while I push down on it, and resist me"), I was told I have very weak muscles in my hips. Either my hips weren't strong enough to keep my ankles (and presumably knees) in alignment, or vice versa. Whatever it was, after a few weeks of physical therapy and regularly doing key exercises that focused on my ankles, my hips, and my core, my limping was practically gone.

It's four or five years later, and I'm keeping up with my workout routine. Some of the exercises haven't changed, like the calf raises; other exercises have been made a bit more complicated, like crunches that are done on the large stability ball. The net result is that I've been able to maintain my improved ankle, hip, and core strength. And I've also taken more responsibility for exercising on my own, working without a trainer at least once a week.

Last Sunday, in worship, I was thinking of how working one muscle group sustains the alignment in another muscle group, sometimes a half- or whole body away. Working on my core muscles helps my hip alignment; my hip alignment helps my knees; my knees work in coordination with my ankles.

I began thinking of how working one spiritual muscle sustains the alignment in another set of spiritual muscles, seemingly disconnected. My being away from worship for nearly two weeks while I was traveling took me away from my social time with fFriends who knew something of my ongoing journey. It seemed like in turn, being away from fFriends distanced me from the ability to see how Spirit was moving among us as a group, or even among any one of us as an individual.

Not seeing or hearing stories of how the Spirit was moving left a hole in my psyche that I wasn't conscious of, as the road trip and visits among non-Quaker friends continued. By the time I returned to my home, I was feeling the darkness of dejection start to creep in, and I didn't have a plan to interrupt its intrusion.

So it came.

And in worship in the afternoon this past First Day, I was wondering what I was seeking, what I might find, and how one part of my body was supporting and sustaining the health of another part of my body. Might there be a parallel, between how one part of my spiritual life might support and sustain other parts of my spiritual life...?

Worship broke, and a Friend shared the passage from Scripture that he had been reflecting on Luke 11:9-10:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (NIV)
Another Friend reflected on how she relies on God's grace to fall upon her whenever she needs it. A third Friend shared a bit of God's humor as he reconnected with the Spirit during worship.

Listening to these stories began to draw me in, to help me feel reconnected. And the commonality between my inward experience and some of the reflections of my fellow worshipers wasn't lost on me.

We were sustaining one another by sharing our experience of the Presence and of worship as a gathered body. We were able to see and hear and sense how the Spirit was working to bind us together--to one another as well as to God. Frequently, when we've taken the time to share like this out of the silence after worship, we hear similar threads in our experience. It's like we are gathering evidence that Something Happens inwardly and collectively that binds us together in our expectant waiting.

When I spoke after worship of the dark time I had been experiencing, I also acknowledged that that little bit of sharing was already bringing to me a bit of sustenance. Like God's manna, dropped by God's grace to the people traveling in the wilderness, searching for home...


November 7, 2010

Peter and twenty-seven dollars

This particular night, not too long ago, I had plans to attend the yearly meeting's executive committee session since it's taking place in town. I wanted to provide spiritual support to the clerk, and to catch up with a few Friends who I had missed over the summer.

Yeap, those were my plans alright. But God needed me for other things that night.

When I arrived at the meetinghouse ahead of most of the committee's members, I saw Barbara, the Friend in Residence, sitting in the library with a man who I didn't know. He clearly wasn't dressed for the chilly November weather.

I introduced myself and started to hear Peter's story: lost his wife two years ago; lost his son last year to gang violence; out of work; holding onto his faith in God, even though he's been religion hopping; maybe Quakerism could be for him.

At different times, either Barbara or I would interrupt Peter to find out what he wanted or needed just then, but we also worked in tandem to provide an unspoken form of spiritual hospitality to him. At one point, I offered that we settle into a few minutes of Quaker worship--he wanted to know more about what we were like, so why not show him and include him?

Barbara and I used that worship, too, to consider Peter's very specific request: that he be given some paid work that night so he could pay to stay for a few days at something akin to a short-term, low-rent facility that also provides meals.

Peter wanted to maintain his dignity by doing paid work, and he refused any sort of handout.

"How much money would you need for where you want to stay tonight?" we asked.

    Twenty-seven dollars, he said.
"When do you have to be there?"
    Eight o'clock.
It was a few minutes past seven.

We worshiped some more.

Out of the worship, Barbara identified a task that needed to be done, and here was someone willing to do it. Maybe it was a way for all of us to save face: Peter could help with the task; we could pay him for his time and labor, light as it was; the task could be crossed off of a long to-do list for care of the meetinghouse.

While Peter was working, I went to where I had left my things, including my money clip in my coat pocket. I recalled I had a few bills left over from an event I went to the night before, for which I had to pay for parking, in cash. "Maybe somehow I can ask folks who are here for Executive Committee to chip in for Peter," I thought to myself.

While still wondering about this to myself, introductions at Executive Committee were going around, and before I could grab my coat and scoot out the door, I was asked to introduce myself. "Uh... Sure," I said, and I offered my name and where I worship.

Then I jumped in a bit deeper.

"Actually, I have to leave unexpectedly. There's a gentleman in the building, his name is Peter. He's homeless and out of work. He's looking for paid work tonight so he can rent some space and have some hot meals for the next couple of days. The Friend in Residence here has found a task or two for him to help with, and I'll be giving him a few dollars for that work. Then I'm going to drive him to where he'll stay for the weekend, so please keep Peter in your prayers a little while, and I'll keep this gathered body in mine."

I took my coat into the hallway and pulled out my money clip, wondering how on earth I'd be able to go back to the room and ask for more money to help cover what Peter needed...

I pulled out the money clip, and to my surprise was not the ten-dollar bill I thought was there the night before, but a twenty. I opened that up, and inside of the twenty was a five. I opened that up, and inside the five were, of course, two singles.

Twenty-seven dollars.

I shook my head and probably turned my gaze heavenward before I went looking for Peter and Barbara. I found Barbara first and told her we were set for the twenty-seven dollars and that I could drive Peter. Barbara ended up coming along, and we dropped Peter off at the address he had given us.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting with the yearly meeting's executive committee for their last 45 minutes of business that night.

During the closing worship, I stood. "I want to close the loop on what ended up happening with our friend Peter..." Their reaction to when I got to the part about the contents of the money clip were similar to my own: some gasps, some chuckles, some headnods.

I closed my sharing with this awareness:
    "The more I give up the privilege I have," I said, "the more Light I am given."
I later understood that the more privilege I give up, the more opportunities I'm given to give up even more privilege.

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


The morning after all this happened, I woke up and found myself thinking about the story of the woman (or man) walking along the beach and throwing stranded starfish, one by one, back into the water.*

A seemingly useless task, since the beach was covered with starfish, and each subsequent high tide would leave so many more starfish stranded all over again. But when asked by a passerby what difference it makes, in the long run, to toss the starfish back to the ocean, the starfish thrower simply picks one up, tosses it into the sea, and replies, "Made a difference to that one."

But my mind was blending the starfish story with the babies-in-the-river story: So many of us are focusing on helping the down-on-their-luck individuals who we meet by giving them a dollar, a hot meal, a few extra bits of winter clothing. We seldom stop to think that maybe, in addition to that work, we should work to change the system that puts so many people--and especially people of color--"out on the street" to begin with.

In the case of the "babies in the river" story, we need to go upriver to see who is throwing the babies into the river, and intervene there, at that stage, which in turn will eliminate the need to pull out the babies downstream, since the babies won't be thrown into the river anymore.

Sometimes, tossing a starfish into the sea, or giving a man twenty-seven dollars while he is down on his luck, is enough. But more often, there is a larger system that is in play, and sometimes that system is exploiting or institutionalizing racism, xenophobia, sexism, and more.


*This and similar versions of this story are shortened, popularized versions of the Loren Eiseley essay Star Thrower.

November 4, 2010

Grappling with questions

I've been grappling with a few questions in recent weeks:

1. How can I get a grasp of whether or not Friends believe they know "enough" about Quakerism, and how do I do that so I come across as curious rather than judgmental?

2. How can I get a grasp of the needs and "readiness" Friends have to explore Quakerism more than they maybe did through a Quakerism 101? ...and how do I do so in such a way that Friends connect with my curiosity and not with my judgment (though I do have both, y'know)?

3. How can I get a grasp of how interested Friends are in attending workshops that would be presented by a Quaker not only from out of state but also from out of the yearly meeting territory?

4. What is it, really, that the local Quaker community is ready for and interested in about Quakerism?

5. Is it really true, as one distant Quaker has told me, that it's fairly typical that most Friends don't participate in other Quaker activities in their area, that they keep close to themselves and to their meetings? If it IS true, WHY is it true (other than, "People are busy; people are tired; people are overcommitted"), and how do we work to overcome that sort of isolation-insularization?

I've drafted an online survey I'm thinking of distributing to my local community. I could send the link to you if you're interested. It doesn't feel quite right, yet, to send it out to local Friends, so if you AREN'T part of my Quaker community (as in, you don't typically worship where I worship on First Day) and want to look at it, let me know.

You can leave me a note in the comment section, or send me an email at lizopp AT gmail DOT com. Many thanks.