Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Undisciplined Mysticism

I find that I am tired from years of the discipline required to earn my doctorate. In all those years of jumping through hoops, I clipped my wings a bit and so I have been cynical, weary, cold. In all those years of explaining what I know, I have half forgotten the joy of just feeling it. It is a difficult task to intellectualize mysticism. I'm half-drunk and dizzy from twisting my tongue around the master's words. So just for now, I offer this, two ancient poems from ancient lands and one from my own ancient past before I learned to think properly. Such is what my heart is still singing while my words build brittle bridges.

Makeda, Queen of Sheba (1000 B.C.)

I fell
because of wisdom,
but was not destroyed:
through her I dived
into the great sea,
and in those depths
I seized
a wealth-bestowing pearl.

I descended
like a great iron anchor
men use to steady their ships
in the night on rough seas,
and holding up the bright lamp
that I there received,
I climbed the rope
to the boat of understanding.

While in the dark sea,
I slept,
and not overwhelmed there,
dreamt: a star
blazed in my womb

I marveled
at that light,
and grasped it,
and brought it up to the sun.
I laid hold upon it,
and will not let it go.

Mahadeviyakka (12th century)

I do not call it his sign
I do not call it becoming one with his sign
I do not call it union,
I do not call it harmony with union.
I do not say something has happened.
I do not say nothing has happened.
I will not name it You.
I will not name it I.
Now that the White Jasmine Lord is myself,
what use for words at all?


And this from me when I was still a girl:


I felt Her
touch me today
Reaching through my body
with white fire hands
that cooled sweetly
at the touch
of my soul
who gasped
before spreading itself palm to palm
to Her touch.
It sighed,
a choking kind of sigh-
was filled-
was filled-
before She drew away
Leaving me the
dazzling
vision
of sunlight on a white pebble
in the grass.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Marriage to the Divine

Some days ago I wrote a comment on Cat's blog
Quaker Batman I've decided to repost it here. There are times when I write from my head and other times when I write from my heart. On this occasion, I wrote from my heart and my brain was surprised. Being a person who likes to organize things and keep them tidy, I thought I'd keep this here to remind myself that my heart often knows what my brain does not. Here's what I wrote:

Cat, as I was reading this, I was thinking that I've not imagined that turning toward the mundane was actually turning away from the divine. I guess the way I think of this is more like marriage. The Divine is the Beloved but as in a successful marriage, one cannot maintain the first blush of infatuation, the deepest moments of passion, the intensity of emotional or physical intimacy...at least not all the time. There are times when the divine energy is rapturous, burning, consuming and deep. And there are times when the relationship is practical, common and everyday. After searing spiritual revelation, God stays with me in the often dull work of manifestation, of bringing the fruits of divine conception to maturity. The Egyptians called their husbands "brother." And like a husband/brother, I am allowed to take "him" for granted, to joke with "him", to speak to "him" in the way couples have of shorthand jokes, body language and just a "look." This is an intimacy far beyond passion. This is the intimacy of the everyday. Whenever I look up from laundry, dishes, or even Star Trek, there "he" is- gentle and ever-present.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The state of the meeting: just fine without me

Some who have read earlier blogs know that I have been struggling to be comfortable in my meeting. For a long time I have been a sort of Goldilocks looking for the meeting that was just right. One is warm and inviting but does nothing for me spiritually. One is too cold although spiritually rich. One is too big and too far away. Eventually, I decided I would settle on the first one, the one I've attended longest, the one that was closest to my home (green choice) which is also the one where I feel the spirit in worship sometimes. I felt relieved to have made a choice.

Except the meeting never felt any warmer. I never felt any more welcome. We kept talking about a place for my children to have First Day School so we wouldn't have to wait in the hallways and nothing ever came of it. I tried to talk to Friends after meeting but I always came away wondering if it really would matter if I never showed up to meeting again. Worst of all, I stopped feeling the spirit moving in the silence. The silence became a dead form. So I stopped attending. Not on purpose really, just little by little. I started dreading going the night before and in the morning, I'd feel tired and moody. The weather would be lousy or I'd have papers to grade or a lesson to prepare. There was always a reason. My husband would say, "Are we going to meeting tomorrow?" and my response would be "Oh shit. I'd forgotten tomorrow is Sunday."

I know I am supposed to be a Friend. I've known it for a long time. It is at the center of my life and thoughts and is an important, life-affirming, and joyful part of my marriage and my parenthood. So why should meeting be so painful? I just don't know and that's the simple truth.

I write this tonight because I feel a heavy sadness that I thought I might lay down if I could just write it out. I read the state of the meeting report sent to my private email address. I was not at any of the meetings and did not hand in the worksheets (although dh and I did fill them out carefully and honestly) so I did not contribute to the report. I don't know how I feel about this. They can't know how much pain I have been in for the past two years regarding my place in their meeting unless I tell them but then again, I don't want that to be their burden. If they are happy without me, then I don't want to bring the unwelcome drama. I'd rather just slip away and meet them in friendship in the community and at gatherings of Friends at holidays and regional meetings. I did note one line of the report that mentioned that perhaps they aren't as "accommodating" to new members as they might be. I did not know if that meant us. Maybe. It doesn't matter. I never wanted to be a bother. I just wanted to feel that I belonged and that never happened.

As I write this, I feel the frustration of feeling that I am the one who is the problem. It is so much easier when one can lay the blame elsewhere. But these are good people. Our clerk is dear and loving, the very embodiment of hospitality. She is among the most genuine people I know and I look up to her with great admiration. Her ministry in the prison and in the greater community is powerful. Her husband too is a beautiful person whose commitment to the environment and to the cause of peace inspires me. In fact, if I went around the circle of Friends who sit with me on a First Day morning, I could tell you how each of them is honorable, loving, kind, gentle... These are good people. Why can't I belong to them?

But I don't belong to them. I feel it clearly. They respond to me in that polite way people save for those they don't know very well. My children are not the meeting's children. My skills are not needed. When I walk in, I feel politely received but not welcome. After two years, I am an acquaintance, not a Friend.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Message about Protestantism from a formerly Congregationalist (U.C.C.) f/Friend

I've been reading about "Protestants" on Quaker blogs. Very interesting. There are times (now no one be insulted) that I think Friends might not actually be quite as familiar with Protestantism as they think they are. They shouldn't feel bad. Protestants aren't nearly as familiar with Protestantism as they think they are either. I read and heard lots of things about what folks think Protestant Christians believe. Horrible things. Infant damnation. Predestination. Human depravity. I'm sure there are people who believe this nonsense but I grew up in a "Calvinist" church and I never met anyone who did. Certainly the ministers that my father (himself ordained as a U.C.C. minister) and I know and with whom we trained do not believe in that. Could be my east coast heritage. Could be that growing up in the heart of the church is its own kind of bias.

I grew up in the Methodist and Congregationalist churches as a preacher's kid. There were several Protestant ministers in family (including Jonathan Edwards). My father's friends and colleagues were, logically, clergy persons. As an adult, I attended seminary and later worked with Protestant clergywomen on the board of an interfaith organization. As an academic, I study the history of the Protestant Church in the United States, especially in the Burned Over District. And, funnily enough, some of my best friends are Protestants. ;-) In many ways, although I consider myself a Neo-Pagan/Quaker, I have lived in the Protestant church both literally and figuratively most of my life. Therefore, I always thought I knew something about what it meant to be a Protestant.

I believe that my perspective of Protestantism is different than most because I actually had access to the academic and organizational level of Protestantism whereas most Protestants do not. (This is one of the greatest advantages Friends have over Protestant laity.) Many Protestants who should know better, believe all kinds of stupid and horrible things that they learned not from responsible religious educators but from similarly ignorant parents and friends. As a Methodist,part of my father's job was to go into "troubled churches" and try to help them become, well, to put it bluntly, less mean-spirited and ignorant. (If my assessment sounds harsh, that's because it is. I'm not tolerant of bigotry justified by sloppy theology and ignorance.) He would introduce inclusive language, try to get them to behave lovingly to each other, and and get them to stop talking about the devil. That kind of thing. It was like being in a military family. We moved around a lot. The bishop would call my father and we would move. Typically, we never stayed anyplace longer than 2 years.

As you can imagine, this grew tiresome so we switched to the U.C.C. This was not an earth-shaking change. In fact, nothing changed except that we didn't have to put up with the super-obnoxious Methodist hierarchy anymore. Dad had more freedom but he kept on doing his thing. The differences in theology between the mainline churches is negligible and/or mostly humorous.* (Mainline would include American Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, U.C.C., Episcopalian, Lutheran with the Episcopalians and Lutherans obviously more high church than the American Baptists and Methodists.) You won't get knocked over by differences in sermons, liturgies, readings and hymns. There will be theological differences and historical differences but in practice, they are all, from a layperson's perspective, similar enough that their clergy can share seminary training.


So I finished growing up in the United Church of Christ, the Congregationalist Church, which is a direct descendant of the Puritans. Holy Calvinism, Batman! That must have been horrid! Actually, the U.C.C. is the most liberal of the mainline Protestant churches. UUism is more liberal but then as the joke goes, UUs are merely Quakers with ADHD and not properly an orthodox Christian denomination. I challenge you to find any hellfire and brimstone in a modern U.C.C. church. You know President Obama is a Congregationalist? Well, he's kind of typical of the smart UCC people I know (except none of them are the elected leaders of nations although they may head committees.)

Here is the UCC website for those who would like to browse and see what Congregationalists feel about theology, human rights, gay marriage, etc.

One thing to keep in mind is that the U.C.C., because it is congregationalist, cannot really be completely understood by looking at this official website. The individual congregations, by the very definition of congregationalism, don't have to believe any of this stuff. The reality is that on some issues, the laity are more conservative than the clergy (or more liberal I suppose although I've never once seen that happen). For instance, my father married a lesbian couple way back in the early 1990s and then had his congregation turn ugly on him. (That's one of the primary reason he is no longer preaching but that's addressed in more than one of my other blog entries.)Come to think of it, even though Methodists are supposed to believe what the hierarchy tells them to believe, most of them don't bother. People often choose the church that is close enough to home so that they don't miss the football game.

So what did we officially believe? From memory I quote the Apostles creed.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered on Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

Note especially that the line about Hell is omitted from this version. We never messed with Hell. My father didn't believe in it. If sins are forgiven once and for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then why would people go to hell? That was his answer to me. We believed that there was nothing a human being can do to negate God's love and forgiveness and that the hardest thing we had to do was to remember that the same kind of love was required of us. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

We believed in liberation theology. We believed in social justice, in feminism, and that God called us to pacifism. We believed in gay rights, anti-colonialism, and that missionaries have no business sending people overseas or even next door to try to convert them. At worst it is a violation of another person's spiritual rights. At best it is just rude and annoying.

Now the was the official story. In our own family, it got a little bit more radical. The virginity of Jesus and his mother were pretty suspect and the special divinity of Christ was optional. Remember that to be a minister, you have to complete three years of graduate education after a four year undergraduate degree (typically in the social sciences or humanities).

Any seminary worth its salt is not going to be tolerant of literalism or knee-jerk dogmatism. Even if you come from a fundamentalist background, you're going to have to learn about some pretty left-wing interpretations of the theology and biblical texts. In seminary you are likely to be introduced to such concepts as Gnosticism and the idea of the feminine divine (Christ-Sophia). In seminary you are expected to understand the bible includes error, politics, inaccuracy in transcription and translation, and omission. You are expected to use methods (feminist, liberationist, historical critical, even archetypal) to deconstruct the text. And the text will never be the King James version, at least not in my experience. Whatever you may think of the KJV as an example of literature, however much you may talk about the beauty of its language, as a translation, it is crap.

Now all this may sound like Dad and I went to a pretty radical seminary, probably Unitarian Universalist. Nope. The seminary my father and I attended was Baptist/Roman Catholic. Imagine that. This kind of liberal stuff comes straight out of a conservative denomination. Imagine just how much difference there is between what the well-educated clergy of all mainline traditions know and believe and what their parishioners know and believe. This is one of the reasons for the serious burn-out and depression that haunts clergy-people. Also imagine how miserable it is to see all Protestantism portrayed in the media as if we are intolerant bible thumpers, dour Puritans, or greedy televangelists.

Popular Christianity, as we all have noticed, has become disturbing lately, so much so that lots of us have left the faith completely and others are loathe to use the word "Christian" in public. Sadly, in the past decade, there has been an erosion of the mainline churches. They are losing their numbers and in an attempt to maintain relevancy, they are turning to some of the histrionics and cheap tricks of the...um...let's just say "non-mainline churches." Faith bands, prayer hands, fire and brimstone preaching have no place in a rational, liberal Protestantism. The one inheritance of Calvinism for which I make no apologies is intellectualism and I have no use for any deviation that vilifies this. I believe that if the mainline churches are to survive as a vehicle of peace and human equality than they must appeal to their intellectual tradition and not to gimmicks. Better to welcome extinction with integrity than to allow ignorance and populism dictate their future.

They should stand up against illiberal biblical interpretation, dogmatism, intolerance, and spiritual fear-mongering rather than adopt the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy. I always say if they're going to go down, they should go down like champions.

Amen.

Now what does this have to do with Friends? Not much except that I think it is important, critical even, that liberal Friends work very seriously with liberal Protestants for the sake of social, economic and environmental justice. It will never do to make the assumption that Martin Luther's and John Calvin's words hold much sway with a Congregationalist or a Presbyterian just because they are descended from the Puritan tradition. Remember that the Transcendentalists and Unitarians are also direct descendants of this religious family tree. It will never do to assume that the clergy and the laity are in complete agreement or that there aren't regional differences that must be respected. Baptists in NY are a far cry different than those in the South. It will never do to assume that because Protestants are creedal and hierarchical in organization that either the individual laypeople or clergymen/women you meet are going to think of that point as important. We have to listen. We have a big work before us and these folks are our partners. It is time we get to know them.

I propose that we accomplish this by strengthening our commitments to interfaith dialogue already in place and beginning interfaith organizations where none exist. I encourage Friends to do both historical and contemporary reading of Protestant (and Catholic) texts both popular and academic. There's some excellent stuff out there that is well worth one's while. (Paul Tillich, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Renita Weems, Robert Jewett and Rosemary Radford Ruether (R.C.) are some of my favorites.)

I think we also talk to each other and to our Protestant Friends with a deeper and more critical honesty about what it is we believe not merely to find commonality but to grow to appreciate our differences. Such conversations, though at times uncomfortable, can be liberating and love-filled (I think of my online conversations with Daniel and Cat that have been so heart-melting for me.) When we spend our time talking to ourselves, we begin to calcify, fossilizing our thoughts in our own arrogance. Conversations with others keep us green and fruitful. Loving, faith-ful intellectual exchange keeps us spiritually fertile and is the creative energy that the planet needs right now.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Light and Lint: A Child's Theory of Sin

I remember my parents teaching me that there was no hell. How could there be a God of infinite Love and Forgiveness who would allow such an injustice? When I was a child and I made mistakes, my parents would explain how I was still growing and developing, still learning the skills of how to articulate my concerns, how to coordinate the actions of my body, how to discern. They told me about how natural it was for kids to rebel against authority. They talked about separation-individuation and my need to differentiate myself from their personalities. (I used to read the DSM3-R the way other kids read comic books) Gentleness and kindness were required of me above all else but if I, a child surrounded by love, could sometimes be mean and low, how much harder must it be for children who were surrounded by fear and danger? And they were just children too, as vulnerable and uncertain as I was.

My folks worked with people whose suffering was unimaginable. Child abuse, drug addictions, domestic violence, rape, and poverty can break people. Such people are betrayed by their families and communities and many times, too many times, they betray their own families and communities in return. Is this evil? I don't know how to answer that philosophical question. I do know it is horrible and painful and all too common. These people were part of my life and consciousness. As much as my folks tried to shield me from pain, inevitably, some of it filtered in. I remember my parents leaving for emergency rooms in the middle of the night. I remember tears and frantic voices over the phone and being pulled aside by parishioners to deliver messages I was too young to hear. I knew that some parents beat their children and some daddies beat the mommies. I knew that there were sexual predators in my community and unlike other kids, I knew who some of them were. I knew about drugs and alcohol and suicide.

And I knew that my parents believed human beings were incredible and beautiful and that they did not believe in hell.

Dad used to joke that he would rather do a funeral than a wedding. "At least I know that when I send someone off in a funeral, they're going to a good place."

As a minister, Dad was there at all the life stages of his parishioners. He baptized their babies and confirmed their kids. He performed their marriages and counseled them through hard times (in addition to his M.Div., he also had post-graduate training in psychotherapy). When they grew sick and weak, he stayed by their sides and held many people's hands even as they died. It was in death that he glimpsed divinity most clearly. I asked him if people were scared. He told me that they were scared and angry and hurt but that something happened as the moment of death drew near. Something came and changed them, brought them peace. They relaxed as if into the care of someone else, someone who loved them.

So I was never afraid of hell. If there was forgiveness and care after a lifetime of meanness and misery, then there must be for me as well. All I'd done was punch my sister in the arm. When I was a little girl, I came up with a theory of sin and reconciliation. I thought that we were all sparks of light emanating from the One Light. Each of us came into a body and a human life and from that point forward we began picking up lint like a lifesaver in a kid's pocket. Some of us who landed in good families in good circumstances began picking up pretty pastel lint, all fluffy and warm. Others were not so lucky and the lint we picked up was dirty and sticky, obscuring our light. Throughout life, we roll around from lint to lint...some dirty, some clean, some pretty, some not. And then we die.

When we die, the One Light gathers us in again and gently breathes upon us so that all the lint just blows away revealing the beloved light that is our only true self. As I grew older, I realized that we learn from our lint, these pleasurable and painful experiences of life, but we are not our lint. We are not our experiences, or our fears or our errors. We are not even our intelligence, talents, and passions. We are something more. We are points of brilliance, born and beloved of the One Light and no amount of lint can ever change that.

I try to remember this childhood theory when I confront pain and suffering in the world. I try to remember that when I must confront people whose words and deeds are mean and even evil. The personalities I see in my life and on the news may be evil but the essence of them, the soul of them is not. Whatever ugliness, bitterness, and cruelty I see on their faces is not the true part of themselves. It is not the Sacred Reality of them. If I could see them with God's eyes, I'd see their brilliance. I'd see only their light.

Monday, March 2, 2009

I have a concern...

I have a concern that Friends are not radical enough in their commitment to the environment.

Peace. When we fail to support environmentalist efforts, we fail to promote peace. The imbalance of use and access of natural resources between the developed and developing nations has resulted in a long and bloody history. Imperialism, slavery, forced migration, territorial wars, and genocide are all direct causes and results of environmental destruction. From the murders of indigenous peoples in the Amazon to the slavery of the people of the Congo, to the attempted genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America, lust for resources has fueled the most obscene violence humanity has ever witnessed. A failure to insist on the centrality of environmentalism in our spiritual practice is a failure to live up to our Testimony of Peace.

Integrity. Integrity is more than just honesty. It implies wholeness, moral rectitude and ethical passion. There is no integrity in taking more than your fair share. There is no integrity in saying you care for the poor, the weak, and the hungry when you are not willing to resist a lifestyle that results in poverty, weakness and hunger in your sisters and brothers. If we are not willing to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions in the name of radical love, then we have no integrity. A failure to make environmental justice a central theme of our lives is a failure to live up to our Testimony of Integrity.

Community. We cannot survive as a species apart from our environment. That we are living lives of relative comfort in the western world does not mean that our collective actions are not leading to very real and very deadly results around the world. For now, we in the West remain largely insulated from the nightmarish results of our actions. Deforestation. Soil erosion. Air pollution. Water pollution and scarcity. Western peoples have disproportionate power because we have disproportionate access to resources (in part because we used imperialism to exploit the resources in other countries). Today our rampant consumerism and thoughtless lifestyles continue to cause shortages, disease, and starvation in the world community. A failure to support radical environmentalist action is a failure to live up to our Testimony of Community.

Equality. It is not a matter of theory that some human beings struggle to survive or die needlessly because they do not have enough clean water, enough land to farm, and enough medicine to get well while others, including many Friends, have so much they think nothing of throwing it away. There is no equality when the foods we purchase are produced by slave labor, deplete the planet's resources, and poison the planet. There is no equality when the products we buy are manufactured unethically. When we are willing to sacrifice the lives of others for our conveniences, pleasures and addictions, then we are utterly failing to live up to our Testimony of Equality.

Simplicity. Gandhi asked us to live simply so that others may simply live. Long before Gandhi, Friends' Testimony of Simplicity was at the heart of a spiritual lifestyle that eschewed greed, hierarchy, and symbols of inequality. Simplicity supported resistance to the world's most deadly fashions. The Testimony of Simplicity, an ancient form of Voluntary Simplicity, is ideally suited to provide spiritual light and integrity to the greater environmentalist movement. But unless Friends are willing to act on their ideals, then "Simplicity" is meaningless: worse, in the light of our great material wealth, the word becomes an obscenity. The destruction of the environment is a direct result of humanity's failure to live in balance. Greed, consumerism, and rampant, irresponsible industrialization have deeply threatened our planet's ability to sustain life. When we consume more than our fair share, when we lust after possessions and make excuses for behaviors we know damage the land, water, and soil upon which our brothers and sisters depend, then we have shamefully failed in our Testimony of Simplicity.

The evidence is mounting. Global warming, desertification, famine, species extinction, pandemic disease, birth defects, chronic illnesses, and natural disasters are increasing in intensity. Most horribly, those who have the least power and the least wealth will suffer first and they will suffer most painfully. We know that women and children suffer disproportionately in natural disasters and from starvation and poverty. We know that the poor suffer first in times of resource scarcity. We know they suffer disproportionately in wars and in refugee camps. We who are fortunate enough to own televisions and computer have seen the faces of the dying. We know what is at stake.

So I issue a jeremiad. Friends are not given to millennialism but I say to you that while we live in comfort and ease, for many of the weakest, poorest, and most egregiously exploited, the end of times are literally at hand. Are we to be the instrument of their deaths, if not by violence then by indifference? We who were called to stand for women's equality, for the absolute and immediate emancipation of slavery, for the end of the world's most popular wars can and must take a radical stand to preserve the environment. It is a matter of justice, of equality, and of love. It is a matter of survival. And we are running out of time.