Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sierra Club Insider: Tennessee Rocks!

I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. Well, not so much a mountaintop as in a hospital. Still, the point is that I was born in Tennessee and that's what I have to say whenever I cross the border into Canada. My mother was, as I heard it, among the very first in the state in these more modern times to use a natural childbirth method so I entered the world "alternative" and "natural". She and Dad were seniors in college at the time enjoying Bluegrass music and being crazy, young, newly wed, long-haired leftist types. After I came along, they dressed me in denim overalls and took me along to the coffee house to hang out with the musicians and the radicals... and thus began my liberal education. One of my favorite pictures of myself is at my first birthday party, looking up at my parents' good friend, Ed Snodderly, as he played a tune on my tiny toy piano.

We didn't stay in Tennessee long. My folks moved on to Richmond and then Boston and finally back home to New York so my father could finish his grad work. I'm a Southerner by birth but not by heritage or upbringing. Our family has New England and New York history that goes centuries back. That I was conceived and born in Tennessee has been a bit of a family joke. It explains, my parents say, why I've always loved to be barefoot. I think because my personality is very type A, uptight and northeastern, it amuses my free spirit parents to remind me that the neighbors brought soup beans to the house to celebrate my birth.

Yesterday, here in the small New York where my parents grew up (as did many generations before them), my mother and I were standing together listening to a Bluegrass band playing in the gazebo at the Commons, a little park just big enough for a baseball diamond and a little playground. I was feeling that strong sense of place I often do when surrounded by the grand old Victorian homes and oak trees on the streets where my parents met and fell in love. This is truly home. Listening to the music, Mom commented that she missed Tennessee. I asked her what she missed. It was the music, and the mountains and the people she missed. We stood and listened to the bluegrass band sing of death and loss, sorrow and hopefulness in the good old way. It is good music that makes you want to cry and dance at the same time.

I'll never know just how much of my parents' joyfulness in their Tennessee home remains forever with me in my personality. They were poor there but surrounded by friends and full of the confidence of those times that faith in the good can conquer even the greatest sorrows. It does me good to remember that when a critical look at this world's troubles brings me low. I think of my Tennessee nativity as one of my secret superpowers. I'm too hopeful, too confident in the good will of simple, loving, and faithful people to be broken. I'm too familiar with the way the heart can leaven sorrow with humor and good old-fashioned faith. I'm a typical New Yorker in many ways- analytical, depressive, obsessive and rushed. But just when you think you know me, you'll find me dancing to Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

So have a look what the good people in my birth state have been doing on behalf of the mountaintops of Tennessee. It makes me proud right down to my bare toes.


Sierra Club Insider: Tennessee Rocks!

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quakers and Diversity. A quick comment and a little advice

Some people reject Christianity when they come to believe that the religion has betrayed their values. Perhaps they see bigotry, intolerance and an abusive use of power in the religion of their childhood and they seek to escape that and to make a spiritual journey toward a more healing and loving tradition. That is not my story because that was never my Christianity.

There is more than one Christianity! There are multitudes of denominations and sects, all with their own perspectives (often competing and contrary) so it is pretty crazy for any of us to attempt to define the religion or to assume that our own experience of Christianity is definitive. There's no way anyone can turn their noses up at "Christians" without hearing first what kind of Christianity they espouse. I did not grow up in a narrowly defined Christianity that emphasized biblical literalism and/or that used its power to foster bigotry, violence, or patriarchy. My experience of Christianity was quite the opposite with an emphasis on social justice and equal rights for marginalized peoples and for women. The Christianity I grew up in was pacifist and post-colonial. Its study demanded biblical criticism not biblical literalism.

Some reject Christianity because they came to believe that it was oppressive, limiting, and judgmental. I stopped being a Christian in any orthodox sense but I never rejected it and do not feel injured by it. I just added more layers to my spirituality through my experiences with Neo-Paganism and comparative religion studies. When I read various essays by bloggers who weave Eastern traditions with Christian traditions, I see similarities with my own experiences as a Theosophist and Pagan. There are many of us who grew up in a very liberal Christian tradition that encouraged appreciation for different cultural perspectives and who have added onto our childhood religion through study of other traditions. That's not rejection. That's universalism.

I think it is awfully important to consider the differences in our backgrounds when we come together in community. Love requires us to take care and to move slowly. It requires us to listen unselfishly and deeply.

Many of us who come to Friends do so from other traditions, both Christian and non-Christian. Since the Religious Society of Friends began, Christianity has diversified tremendously. Many of come to Friends from broadly diverse Christian backgrounds. Since the Religious Society of Friends began in England and grew in America, there has been enormous change in our knowledge of and access to other religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions from all around the world. Many of us come to Friends from broadly diverse non-Christian backgrounds.

There are Christian Friends and there are non-Christian Friends. We might do well to listen to each other a bit more carefully to avoid hurting each other unnecessarily.

Here are some questions for Christian Friends.

1. Is this person a non-Christian? If so, do they have a Christian background or do they come to us from an entirely different spiritual or philosophical background? Do I truly know enough about their background to make judgments about their intentions?

2. If this person is a former Christian, do I know why they now no longer call themselves Christian? Which Christian perspective (out of the multitudes) is in their past and how does that affect their relationship to christ-centered language? Was their experience with their version of Christianity predominantly positive or negative? What care and sensitivity does this individual require to encourage their best gift of love?

Here are some questions for non-Christian Friends

1. When you hear Christian language, are you overlaying your own frustrations with judgmental Christians onto your interpretation of the current speaker's words? Can you take the time to hear this speaker as a precious individual ? Are you remembering that there are many Christian perspectives or are you making stereotyping judgments?

2. How familiar are you with scriptural language as it is often used by Friends? Can you make better interpretations of their meaning if you delve more deeply into this poetic language as a foundational aspect of historical Friends' witness or are you confusing this language with the usage of Christian language from other historical traditions?

For all Friends encountering someone whose background differs from your own:

1. Can you, like the Native American man who was moved by John Woolman's ministry, hear where their words come from? Can you discern kindness and good intention in this speaker even when their words offend or confuse? ( William Penn said, "Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.")

2. Do you really want to injure or reject this person before you who wants to belong in your society and who has exposed their difference to you in trust?


Maybe others can add to this preliminary list of questions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Little More Than a Day's Work: Sadness, John Woolman's Words, and the Story of Human Calling

I have been thinking, a bit, about the dark times of personal calling. I've been thinking about how sad and hard and even unfair it is that working toward what we know is good and right and just often leads to such unhappiness. Police don't hand out lollipops to demonstrators. You won't become a millionaire as a social worker. During a war, pacifists are never the toast of the town. I've been teaching about feminism and civil rights and my students have made some important comments. They've been wondering how the men and women they read about kept going in the midst of all the opposition and unkindness they encountered. How many times can a person get slapped down before they refuse to stand up again?

In part, I think this has grown out of the juxtaposition of the work we must do and the bland and saccharine statements well-meaning people often make about the work. Specifically, I note that many very liberal people (people with whom I otherwise agree) often make statements in meeting about finding bliss and finding peace and contentment in their lives. They speak of a belief that God wants us all to be happy, as if God is some kind of cosmic middle-class parent admiring our macaroni necklaces.

I know we all experience the Divine differently. Perhaps for some the experience is more peaceful. Perhaps their God's face is never darkened by the suffering I find there. A woman in a meeting I once attended gave a message in which she explained that she would now carry a very expensive toy from her collection of very expensive toys with her all the time to remind her to appreciate life. I guess that message must have been for someone else in the meeting. I kept thinking that I knew of lots of people who might appreciate life a bit more if she sold the very expensive toys and gave them the money so they could eat. Her evaluation of what is demanded of us is very different from my own.

Now I'm not saying that I'm some kind of saint. Far from it. Indeed, that woman may very well be a much better person than I am. It wouldn't be a difficult task to out-good me. I'm a self-centered malcontent on my best days. I figure that's why I've experienced the Divine more harshly than others have. Rainbows and kittens are far less likely to move my stubborn heart. I have what is kindly called "a challenging personality." It requires a little tough love. It has been through tears and in the times when I had no more tears to shed that I have been closest to my Source. For me, it has been in the darkness, when my outer shell is finally broken that the tender shoots emerge. We are called to grow upwards toward the Light but also deeply into Earth, in the Darkness. We are called to Joy and we are called to Pain. We are called to grasp- playfully, desperately-- onto Life, and then to let it go. In this paradox, we are called to serve, to serve and never know, perhaps until the end, why or wherefore.

Knowing what to do with the darkness is at the heart of this for me. I'm not interested in any philosophy that chooses to gloss over it, to ignore its presence and power in our lives. I am struck by the number of times people say that if we follow our calling of service, it will make us happy. Really? I wonder. If that is the case, then all of history mocks us. Specifically and personally, I resist suggestions that I should ignore my sense of calling when my calling makes me unhappy (and it does make me unhappy so often.) You know what I would do if I thought that I could measure my success with happiness? I'd tell everyone to go piss up a rope and then I'd go home and read Star Trek books with a big ass bowl of popcorn on my lap.

But here's the thing. We aren't called to personal happiness. We are called to unconditional love. And you know what? Unconditional love hurts like hell. Sign up for that kind of service and don't be surprised when you find yourself slogging through hell. The world is broken, my friends, and it will take an army of us to put it together again. Matilda Joslyn Gage, suffragist, theorist, and historian warned us that we would need both patience and strategy. "We need not expect the concessions demanded by women will be peaceably granted; there will be a long moral warfare before the citadel yields; in the meantime, let us take possession of the outposts."

I often wonder if I'm making any difference at all with my speeches and my blogs and my papers and my research. In the end, who cares? There are some days when I sure as hell don't. But I keep on working because, well-- because this is the work I do. It is the work a lot of us do. "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!" said Sojourner Truth. Well maybe we've still got some turning to do but in the meantime, we're taking possession of the outposts. This story I study has not been a happy story. Not by a long shot, but what a story it has been!

When I'm reading the histories of saints and reformers, I like to linger on the passages where they sound angry, bitter, hopeless, compromising and discouraged. It reminds me that they too were human and that if they sat and wrote down discouraged thoughts before picking themselves up and throwing themselves back into the darkness, I can do it too.

"...The uprightness of the first reformers in attending to the light and understanding given to them opened the way for sincere-hearted people to proceed further afterwards; and thus each one truly fearing God and laboring in the works of righteousness appointed for him in his day findeth acceptance with Him. Through the darkness of the times and corruptions of manners and customs, some upright men may had had little more than than their day's work to attend to the righteous principle in their minds as it related to their own conduct in life without pointing out to others the whole extent of that into which the same principle would lead succeeding ages."

So said John Woolman in his journal as he labored to end the practice of slave ownership Friends. "A little more than a day's work" just to get righteousness in your own heart before you could spread it to others. How sad. What a slow, long process. Is this what he believed? Does this mean that all the good he did in other lives was veiled from him? It is easy to see what a profound influence he had on the abolitionist movement of the following century. It is easy to look back at Woolman as an exemplar of how gentle faith can change the world. But what would John Woolman think of his progress?

"Being weakly, I was covered with sorrow and heaviness on account of the prevailing spirit of this world by which customs grievous and oppressive are introduced on the one hand, and pride and wantonness on the other."

His journal is full of such remarks about his uncertainty and his sadness as he engaged in what must have been work that was often disheartening, exhausting, and dangerous. He was a modest man, often painfully so, yet he felt sent into the world to speak and behave in a way that could only have been seen as bold and arrogant to the slaveholders to whom he was sent to minister. Would he be rewarded with a happy ending, the kind we promise young people who "follow their bliss"?

By the end of his journal, we follow his long journey to England, a journey he undertakes out of a profound sense of obedience to the will of the Divine. Crossing the ocean, he refuses the good accommodations available to him because it troubled him deeply to be comfortable while the sailors suffered. Taking passage in steerage, he ministered amongst the sailors through the long and perilous ocean voyage. The sailors were a rough lot, often drunk when they weren't engaged in hard
physical labor. "I often feel a tenderness of heart for these poor lads, and at times look at them as though they were my children according to the flesh." His words here echo his feeling of brotherhood among the Native American people to whom he also ministered and of whom he said, "A near sympathy with them was raised in me, and, my heart being enlarged in the love of Christ, I thought that the affectionate care of a good man for his only brother in affliction does not exceed what I then felt for that people." With neither the sailors nor the Native American people did he feel safe (love does not guarantee safety!) and indeed, both on ship and through his travels through the wilderness of North America in a time of war between native and colonizing people, he was not safe. Yet, his heart was "enlarged in love" and he continued.

When Woolman finally arrived in England where he was immediately impressed with the suffering of the poor, he proceeded in haste to the Yearly meeting where he presented his certificate from Friends in America. But his costume of undyed wool was outlandish to British Friends and they suspected him of being a troublemaker. Without hearing his message, they dismissed him from their presence and told him that he may go home. This was a shocking and heartrending outcome for a man who had committed so much of his life's resources toward this ministry. He had sacrificed nearly all he had and risked his life to be among them and they have rejected him. He sat there quietly for some time to discern what he was called to do. Finally, humbly and in tears he told them that he could not go home but that he would be willing to work in a mechanical trade if any would hire him so that he might not be a burden to any. Maybe it was his humility, or his tears, or his frank and gentle manner, but in any case, their hearts warmed to him. They repented of their hasty judgments and welcomed him among them.

He was with them only four months. John Woolman, who sacrificed so much of his own and his family's comfort and happiness to fulfill his calling in England died of smallpox and was buried in York. He was 52.

This is a story of humbling, Christ-like service with obvious positive results but it not a happy story.

So don't tell me that happiness is sign that I am following God's will for me. I won't buy it. History tells me that those committed to change are not guaranteed lives of ease, comfort and happiness. History also tells me that those who rise above trial often do so on the backs of the poor.

I joke that my expertise is in the history of oppression but the other side of that is that my expertise is in the history of hope. Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." But it takes time to change the world.

As private as these thoughts feel, I share them openly because I know they are common and I know they are ancient. "The arc of the moral universe is long," said Dr. King, "but it bends toward justice." That is a little comfort but it must be enough to sustain us. The revolution of peace is a long, slow business.

Even so, there are days when I have no patience for the moral arc of the universe. Are we meant to languish so long? Sometimes it seems just so to me. There are times when I feel the Universe is awash in sadism and there is nothing for any of us but sharp teeth and slow decay-- but then there are the stars, and lovemaking, and good food and the unnecessary beauty of flowers. There's music, and back rubs and the warmth of my baby's trusting body curled against mine in sleep. There is the quiet surprise of Love. There is the humbling truth that even broken people are capable of immeasurable kindness. I take comfort in this; the world is harsh but tears, after all are gentle.

"A brighter day is come for the world, a day when the intuitions of woman's soul shall be accepted as part of humanity's spiritual wealth; when force shall step backward, and love, in reality, rule the teachings of religion."

Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote those words at the end of the nineteenth century after a lifetime of work advocating for religious freedom and for the rights of women, African Americans and Native Americans. Gage believed this, and I do as well, that a willful remembrance of our historical accomplishments of love, mercy, peace-making and justice would lead to a "regenerated world." Success is more attainable in our present if we know that we have done it in our past. Nations are made of human beings. If I can make one human being believe that the good can triumph, then I still have hope that the world is not lost.

Silly maybe. And naive. But that's my job. That's my calling. I'm never sure if I'm doing it right. I'm full of uncertainty but I keep writing, giving speeches and teaching classes as if everything I do counts. When the dark times come, when the headaches and the depression overwhelm me, I try to find the voice of God there too. This is also part of the day's work. When people know you are a story collector, they'll tell you theirs. Painful stories. Dark stories. Maybe there is healing in the telling. I don't know. Sometimes all I can do is carry the truth of their story with me, incorporate it into my knowing and weave it back into my searching. In story weaving, dark threads offset the gold.

I tried to choose a profession unlike my parents' because I did not think I could carry any more of the stories I learned in childhood of rape and sexual assault, incest and child abuse, drug addiction, poverty, police violence, injustice, corruption, disease, depression, and loneliness. When I was a child, people, knowing I was my parent's daughter, would tell me things no child should hear. I swore I'd never become a social worker or a therapist so those stories couldn't follow me but the stories found me anyhow. Those stories are all around us if we have ears to hear them. People are broken every day of the week.

I don't know if I'm doing any good. The planet reels from the weight of us. I cannot watch the news anymore because it sends me into fits of weeping. There is too much sorrow. Too much death. Whatever I do I cannot do it fast enough or well enough to see the difference. Have I helped? Oh, God, please let me help! Please let me hear you clearly! Please don't let me make a false move. There is so much at stake and you need all of our hands and hearts. You need all of our work in full measure. I beg you to help me see clearly so that I may serve-- and I beg you to leave me alone because I am so tired of the work.


We may be led to places fierce and frightening and we may lose all we enjoy and cherish in the process but it is always worth the effort. I must believe that. I make the study of love and service in the face of terrible odds my profession. "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it," said Helen Keller. Her physical body cloaked her in darkness and silence but her lucidity and her voice as suffragist and socialist belie expectation. And her story is a sad story too, a thoroughly human story, the same kind that has been blessing us all along. We were made imperfect. We were made injured, unwholesome, uncertain, flawed and failing. We were also made for each other and in that is our hope and calling.

I am reminded of Ruth the Moabite whose service to Naomi was humble and steadfast even in the midst of sorrow, starvation, and loneliness. No great queen, prophet or healer, she was a gleaner, a nobody, a foreigner,a widowed daughter-in-law of a widowed woman. But she was also an ancestor of Christ. We do not always know why we are called to serve or who will reap the rewards when we do.

"I never forget that we are sowing winter wheat," said Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy." At the end of her life, Stanton was rejected by the suffrage movement she helped create. She never lived to vote and until recent historical efforts, she was nearly forgotten. We see the triumph of her life now but forget how much frustration and bitterness she must also have carried. The beginning of her career she wrote of equality and justice in ringing words that would (eventually) change the world, but at the end of her life, in her resignation from leadership, she wrote more bitterly,

"From the mountain-tops of Judea long ago, a heavenly voice bade his disciples, “Bear ye one another’s burdens”; but humanity has not yet risen to that point of self-sacrifice; and if ever so willing, how few the burdens are that one soul can bear for another! . . .

So it ever must be in the conflicting scenes of life, in the long, weary march, each one walks alone. We may have many friends, love, kindness, sympathy and charity, to smooth our pathway in everyday life, but in the tragedies and triumphs of human experience, each mortal stands alone."


So it must have seemed and I would take her at her bitter word, except that I know the story of her last hour. Her daughter recorded that Mrs. Stanton kept looking forward even to minutes of her death when she stood looking steadfastly ahead as if making one more speech before slipping into personal and historical oblivion. What held her dying body erect? What words passed within the fading lights of her mind? Her last thoughts are veiled forever from me. So why should I take comfort in her silence?

Why? Because hers was a life lived in service. Because I sense that as she stood waiting for death, the speech she conceived in her solitude of self was for me and for the betterment of humanity. Why should her death be any different than her life? As alone as she felt, she and others like her throw themselves into the sacred story of all humanity. When we make our lives a sacrifice of love, we are received into a common Heart.

I suppose that this is the best we can do. We bear our own and others' burdens as well as we might and still we fall short, we crumple from the weight. Do not tell me that God wants us to be happy or that with Love all things are possible...at least not in any time a human mind can measure. History tells me that people rarely know how their work will fulfill the Promise. Social historians now pay more attention to all the "ordinary" people in history but we rarely understand the impact of a life until long after it was lived. We cannot know how a simple kindness today may grow in glory as it is passed from one generation to the next. If we expect to be the stars of the drama, I'm afraid we will be very disappointed. For all the Stantons and Woolmans and Kings and Kellers there are a thousand of us history will never remember. It is no matter. Keep working. The Story must be carried forward. When there is no audience to applaud and adore you, keep telling the Story with the best of yourself. The common Heart hears and that is enough.

The Story the Heart tells has no name. It just is. I know it is the darkness in which I take root and the Light in which I fly. It is the reason I reach out and the reason I still stand. John Woolman pondered it too. "Through the darkness of the times and corruptions of manners and customs, some upright men may have had little more than than their day's work to attend to the righteous principle in their minds..." Still, it is a good day's work.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

John Woolman, Gay Rights, and Quakers

"Many Friends appeared to be deeply bowed under the weight of the work, and manifested much firmness in their love to the cause of truth and universal righteousness on earth. And though none did openly justify the practice of slave-keeping in general, yet some appeared concerned lest the meeting should go into such measures as might give uneasiness to many brethren, alleging that if Friends patiently continued under the exercise of the Lord in his time might open a way for the deliverance of these people. Finding an engagement to speak, I said,

'My mind is often led to consider the purity of the Divine Being, and the justice of his judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness. I cannot omit to hint of some cases where people have not been treated with the purity of justice, and the event hath been lamentable. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have reached the ears of the Most High. Such are the the purity and certainty of his judgments, that he cannot be partial in our favor. In infinite love and goodness he hath opened our understanding from one time to another concerning our duty towards this people, and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what he requires of us, and through a respect to the private interest of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, God may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this manner.'"

So answered John Woolman when Friends argued that though they did not agree with slave holding, they dared not distress Friends who profited by it, they dared not make slave holding Friends uneasy. There were biblical justifications for slavery. There were religious arguments to support it, yet John Woolman obeyed a Source beyond these texts and stood in the truth of uncompromising Love. Inconvenience, discomfort, fortune, custom, tradition, and even Scripture did not dissuade him. In a world that did not admit the full humanity of African slaves, Woolman humbly but firmly stood on the side of the Light that illuminates all souls.

In New York State where we have dual affiliation with both FUM and FGC, I do not think we have risen to the same level of obedience at which John Woolman excelled. We are smug in our belief that we would all have been abolitionists if we had lived in the days of slavery. We are so confident that when difficult issues arise, we are willing to make the hard choices. Very many of us believe in the equality of all persons and pay lip service to our faith in this principle. But, I ask you, do we maintain the absolute equality and human dignity of LBGT persons within our Society and in the world at large or have we compromised to maintain a shallow and tenuous "unity"? Why is now not the time for us to declare that all people, regardless of differences of biology and sexuality, shall be held in love and honor among us? Do our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters not call out for justice? Will we joyfully, unhesitatingly guarantee and preserve the fullness of their rights to them, to their families, and to their children?

Or are we afraid the cause of gay rights will cause offense? Are we afraid we will make some Friends uneasy? I tell you that as saddened as I am by thought that FGC and FUM may become estranged over this issue, I will not elevate one Friend's comfort over another Friend's equality. I cannot remain silent when one Friend's uneasiness and discomfort can overshadow another Friend's human rights. Our understanding is opened. Now let us be sensible of what is required of us.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

asking for help

I am lost and need direction. I've been putting this one off for some time because it is not easy to ask for help. I will not ask for directions when I travel. When my husband does, I am embarrassed and annoyed and pretend not to know him. I will not ask for help of sales clerks in stores and when they ask if I need assistance (perhaps because they see me wandering fruitlessly in the store with an expression of confusion and bewilderment) I usually refuse their help and though I try not to show it, I am irritated by their question. Help is intrusive. It is demeaning. It tells me that I am not self-sufficient.

But I am not self-sufficient. *sigh* So I am asking for help.

Since I was thirteen, when I received my calling to ministry (an event which will remain undiscussed in this entry), I've been preparing myself. This means that for the past many years (the number of years will also remain undiscussed) I have been spending a good portion of my time engaged in the study of religion and spirituality. I kept a picture of the seminary I intended to attend with me in my bedroom where I studied from volumes borrowed from my father's library. I took the photo with me to undergraduate school where I focused on the study of women in history and religion.

After graduation,despite the fact that I was no longer calling myself a Christian, I finally enrolled in seminary where I received what I have considered a direction change. Following that leading, I dropped out of seminary and began a graduate program in which I studied art history, the psychology of religion, religious history, and feminist theory as components of an interdisciplinary degree in feminist spirituality.

As you can well-imagine, this graduate program did not prepare me for employment! Still, I remained obedient to the directions of the calling and faithful to the idea that in time, I would find an opening for my service. I considered that (contrary to the evidence of this rambling blog) I had a skill and passion for writing. Having begun practicing writing as a means of revelation and self-expression from the age of seven, I decided that it was very likely the vehicle through which my calling would be answered. I also decided that given my passion for scholarly pursuits, I should continue my studies in a doctoral program which, I believed, would serve to legitimize my writing in the publishing world.

I enrolled in a doctoral program requiring interdisciplinary study. My own individualized program combined studies in history, religion studies, and feminist theory. While engaged in that program, I began to give public presentations in historical costume in which I spoke of the religious and feminist history of the region in which I live (the Burned-Over District). I also began teaching history classes at a community college and found the experience to be variously rewarding and infuriating as one might expect.

After graduation from my doctoral program (was it nearly two years ago now?) I find myself frustrated at my inability to fulfill my promises of service.

This is what I know:

1. I am called to serve through my gifts. Especially I am called to serve the cause of empowering women and men to work toward peace with each other and our environment.
2. I am a writer. I feel the need to write almost as I feel the need for food or rest or air.
3. I adore public speaking. It is the only time (apart from time with my family and a very few long term friends) that I feel comfortable among other people. I do, however, find that while the rush of speaking to groups is addictive, prolonged or frequent engagement in public speaking makes me depressed, exhausted and physically ill
4. My tools and subject matter when speaking or writing are religion studies, history, and feminist theory (especially feminist theology and eco-feminism).
5. I am happiest when home with my children, husband, sister and parents. I am a homemaker by choice and a college professor out of necessity.

This is what I don't know.
1. How to publish my work.
2. How to reach the people I am supposed to reach.
3. Who those people are.
4. What I'm supposed to write next or what I'm supposed to do next.

Every single day, I struggle with this. I meditate, pray, and reflect. I consult my dreams, devotionals,and divination tools to try to tease my brain into deeper, more productive reflection. I look at the question emotionally, rationally, and practically. But I get nowhere. I'm almost frantic over my inability to move forward and for the past several months the stress of my failure has resulted in anxiety attacks, bouts of depression, migraines, and chronic abdominal pain.

I need help.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Neo-Pagan Takes Up with Christians at Quaker Quaker and Lives to Tell the Tale

There have been many discussions over at Quaker Quaker between Christian and non-Christian Quakers. Most of the time, I find that Quaker Christians are pretty universalist in perspective and "get me". Lots of times they "get me" better than other Neo-Pagans. It is not for nothing that I attend a Quaker meeting and not a coven. :-) I'm at home among Friends.

However, on more than one occasion, the message I've received has been that if I do not accept Jesus as my Lord and if I do not accept the literal reality of the resurrection, then I am not going in the same direction they are going. I guess that depends on where they are going. If they are heading toward a world united by Love and Equality, a world that the meek shall inherit, then I'm going their way. If they are headed for a land where justice will run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream then we heading toward the same place. Like it or not, I'm your traveling buddy, Friend, and I'm here for the long haul. I'm on your side. I'll take your part. You can piss me off but you cannot stop my love for you. My faith in the Light is too strong for you to dissuade me. I will not abandon the path.

I was reared and educated within the liberal Christian context. I have no quarrel with it apart from its claims of exclusivity and superiority. When I became a Neo-Pagan, I did so not in rejection of the faith of my childhood but because I began to find the Truth I honored as a Christian in so many other places that I thought it would be dishonest to pretend to possess an orthodoxy that clearly does not belong to me.

I am glad I left off calling myself a Christian and became something that many find offensive. As a Pagan, I was subject to rejection I would not otherwise ever have experienced. It was a good thing to experience because it allowed me to see a spot in need of healing. When I joined the board of an interfaith group, the president of the board resigned her position. When I went to a graduate school seminar to begin my doctoral work as a "Goddess woman" studying feminist thealogy, another student quit the program saying he could not be enrolled in a program that would recognize people like me. It was a Christian church that first rejected my family, even when we were still calling ourselves Christians. They did not approve of my father's support of gay people in his congregation.

All of these things hurt me but none of them turned me against the faith of my childhood. I began to realize that those people who would utterly reject me do not practice the faith of my childhood which is one of unconditional love. The faith of my childhood calls us to stand by the weakest, the most vulnerable, the least loved and to call them beloved. Many Christians, for all their insistence upon the finest points of doctrine, do not have enough faith in Jesus to try to follow his commandments.

Some of them think that faith means a stubborn denial that the Exquisite Radiance can shine outside of the theological and historical narratives that make up the Christian tradition. They would put God in a box. But other Christians know the Light when they see it and don't fuss over labels. What of it if someone calls the Light "Darkness"? What if they say "Goddess" instead of "God" or if they say "Compassion and Rationalism" instead of "Love and Truth"? Have faith that we were all meant for each other. Are we to quarrel with each other over noises?

When I think of the Christian belief system as a kind of narrative of the victory of "the least among us" through love, as passion story of the resurrection of hope in the midst of oppression and death, then I'm on board. This is the story I tell when I celebrate the Pagan holiday of Yule. In the time of darkest night, in the dead of winter, we light fires and sing out of joy to teach the Sun to Rise again. A peasant child may be King. An enslaved people may rise to victory. The Red Seas may part. Out of Death comes Eternal Life. The words change but I know the story when I hear it.

I recall my father telling me that it shouldn't matter whether or not Jesus ever lived. The story itself is so good, it is worth living for. It is a weak faith, he told me, that depends on the fact to give credence to the Truth. Fundamentalism and orthodoxy are dangerous to those who insist on them because such things are brittle and vulnerable to doubt. One little archaeological investigation can bring such a faith crashing down. They mistake the words for the Story.

I see myth not as "lies" but as "truths deeper than fact or fiction" These are the stories that sing out beyond, beneath and between their words. We know them when we hear them. The story of Jesus is among them. I will not say it is the greatest of these stories for all people but it has been for many. I know from witnessing it, (oh, so many, many times!) that when practiced with humility and compassion, Christianity works. It works! It works when it has no business working. So do other religions and spiritualities because although their words may differ, the Story is the same. Maybe, more importantly, this Story works across cultures because we are all human, not so different from each other despite our cultural packaging.

I'm a Theosophist so predictably, I tend to look for a transcendent Truth interwoven throughout the greater spiritual world. But I'm also interested in finding our disagreements and differences, not as a means of driving wedges but as a means of increasing our connections to the Divine. It is all very well to hang out with those who see the world just as I do but what good does it do me? I like to be around someone who is tuned into a different frequency than I can receive. I like to be close to them when they are occupying their holy spaces. I'm drawn to spiritual people and places like a cat to sunny windows. I need their take on Truth and they need mine. Divinity delights in diversity.

I guess I see the Truth as something never given to any one of us all at once. (How could any one of us bear it alone?) So here is my ministry. I am among you because I was called to be here (just as you were called) and the Divine calls each of us by name. I belong to you and you belong to me. Do not mistake your revelation as the Infinite Truth. It is a slender thread. Find others and weave together the Story. Do not mistake your illumination for the Source of All Radiance. It is little light. Find others and illuminate the world. Do not mistake your song for the Chorus of the Spheres. It is a humble bit of melody a child can pick out on a toy piano. Wed your song to others' and the Earth will reverberate in Joy. Deny the Truth that others carry and all you wil have will be a broken thread, a sickly light,and a silly tune. But at least you'll have your pride. And you know what they say about pride...