“The Spirit Knows No Camps:” Message given to NEYM Sessions, 8-5-12

Excerpt from a message given by Jocelyn Burnell, Britain Yearly meeting, to the World Conference of Friends in Nakuru, Kenya:

“In the Old Testament there is only a little talk of personal salvation and a lot of concern about the salvation of the community—the Tribes of Israel—the salvation of people collectively . . . Once a year the High Priest, in fear and trembling, entered the Holy of Holies to ask for absolution for the sins of his tribe. He was not sure he was going to come out alive, and nobody else could enter the Holy of Holies to help him. So he left a corner of his shawl trailing out through the door, so that if he died his body could be retrieved by people outside the Holy of Holies pulling on that corner of the shawl.

He usually did come out alive, and then as described in Leviticus (16, verses 21–22:) “And Aaron [who was the High priest] shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. And the goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” . . .

. . . Being able to get rid of sins like that sounds great, but I wonder . . . just as I have learnt (along with others in the West) that you cannot throw rubbish away, because there is no away, I wonder if you can erase sin so simply? I suspect it may come back to you! So if the world body of Friends, if our community is saved, what does it mean? And what are the marks of a community that is saved? I think it means the following: We are united with God; we work in God's strength; We listen to God and follow God's promptings; We listen to each other, for God's promptings may come through other people; We respect the diversity amongst us: not everyone has the same gifts or the same callings and we know there are many ways to God.”

I’ve spent a long time thinking about that high priest entering the Holy of Holies alone. How frightening it must have been to encounter God behind the veil, alone, carrying that responsibility for the whole community—and yet what a temptation into pride! How flattering and how exciting, to be the privileged one, the one nearest God. 

Since the World Conference, I have started to think that we, liberal unprogrammed Friends, might be that prideful Levitical priest. 

Most of us like to talk about how there are many ways to God. I do too, but for many years I didn’t believe it, not in my heart of hearts. I really believed that anyone who agreed with me about the many ways to God was probably spiritually profound, and anyone who disagreed with me had no idea what they were talking about. 

I no longer believe this. In Kenya, though, where many Friends do believe there is only one way to God, I felt this conflict rising in me again.

There was a moment at the World Conference when an unknown friend did something that hurt many other friends—they took down the epistle from the Committee for GLBTQ concerns from where it was posted on the auditorium wall. Another friend, a friend who looks and believes very much like us, stood up and spoke passionately about how this was an act of violence and hatred.

Yes, that was the way she experienced that act. That was the way I experienced that act. And that was the way many of us Westerners responded to that act.

We never found out who tore down the epistle, but later we did find out that many Kenyan friends had a very real fear that the government would violently persecute them if the government thought they supported gay rights. When I learned this, I no longer saw an act of hatred and violence—I saw an act of fear and self-protection. But we, all of us spiritually profound liberal Friends, hadn’t listened before we spoke. Instead, we spoke from our own place of immense privilege and pride—and we were wrong.

This moment was not the only time I heard someone, often a liberal friend, speaking in a way that was true for them—but the words seemed to come not from the Divine Spirit, but instead from a prideful, unreflecting certainty that our way of looking at things was absolutely the truth—that ours was the only path to God.

We have conflated the Inward Light with our own virtue. We have believed that if we look hard enough inside ourselves, we can find all we need to know about God and the Will of God.

We cannot. Trying to do so, trying to find God only in ourselves, leads to some very scrunched and tiny thinking. But the Inward Light isn’t our own conscience or our will. We don’t emit that Light but rather are enlightened by it. We at best reflect it; we certainly don’t own it.

As Quakers, we must believe that the veil is torn. All may enter the Holy of Holies. All may encounter the living Voice of God.
There are other places besides our own souls that we can and must be able to recognise the Light of God, and one of those other places is within people so far removed from everything we believe that I have heard some of us reluctant to even share the name Quaker with them.

It seems that even with all of our silence, we have forgotten how to listen.

One of the prompts I was given for this reflection was, “What gifts does New England Yearly Meeting have to share, and how will we share them?”

New England Yearly Meeting has been given gifts of the spirit, just as each individual is given gifts of the spirit. For instance, I deeply believe that our clarity around GLBTQ rights is such a gift. I believe similarly that our concern for climate change and our commitment to silent, waiting worship are also gifts.

We are given gifts of knowledge and clarity as concerns to be faithfully carried, not as banners to rally around, not as lessons to instill into others, and certainly not as achievements to take pride in. Who are we to be proud of what God has freely given?

So, then, we have a choice: will we continue to approach the world as if we were the proud Levitical priest, alone able to enter the Holy of Holies, burdened with the responsibility of bringing the knowledge of God to all the lost people who disagree with us?

Or will we enter the great gift of our silence and listen deeply—together with our one-time enemies—trusting that the truth will be revealed—knowing that only by a willingness to come together in the Spirit of Love can we ever change hearts or minds?

Which way lies the Kingdom of God?

Returning to Jocelyn’s words, in order to live into the Kingdom of God on Earth—that is, in order to find community salvation—we must listen to God and follow God's promptings—but also listen to each other, across all boundaries of belief, knowing that God's promptings may come through other people, and that there are many ways to God—ways to God for people who are not the priest, for people who are not even part of our camp.

The Spirit knows no camps. 

Let us, then, leave ours. As we encounter others in the world outside of New England Yearly Meeting, or others who believe differently within it, let us let go of all the things that we believe make us special. Let us leave them behind within the camp walls. Instead, let us all take up our burdens together—our gifts and messages, for these can be burdens, but also our pain, our broken-ness, our mistakes—let us take these things, and go outside our little camp, and freely encounter the rich Spirit that is there, poured out on all. For everything we make behind walls, anything we try to make ours, and ours alone, is temporary and will pass—but in the fulness of the Spirit, we can build a lasting kingdom together.


An Acceptable Sacrifice

Home Sweet Ambulance
I can’t accept that I am doing enough to serve God and my neighbors. Everything I do seems like straw when compared to everything I could be doing.

For perspective, so readers might know where I'm coming from, here’s an overview of my schedule for the next little while:

Between now and Tuesday the 31st (that’s three weeks from today), I am working two eight-hour night shifts at hospice, three eight hour day shifts at the hospital, five 12-hour day shifts at the hospital, six 12-hour night shifts on the ambulance (I can sleep if there aren’t any calls, but I stay in-station), and two 12-hour day shifts on the ambulance. If I did my math right, that averages 65 hours per week of service work in health care, some of which I am paid for (hospice and the hospital) and some of which I am not (the ambulance). I didn’t factor in any of my Quaker commitments, but there are a few committee meetings and gatherings thrown into that lot.

It never, ever, feels like enough. All of this time I have given, and it does not feel as if it is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

What is going on here?

Let me first say what I don’t think. I don’t think this is ex-Catholic guilt. I don’t think this is proof of the unhealthy nature of Christianity. I don't think this is about me perseverating on sin and redemption, and I don’t think this is about an angry, implacable God. Possibly, even likely, the reason this is such an issue for me has to do with my deep feelings of inadequacy rooted in childhood unhappiness, but I don’t think it's really about that, either.

I think I find myself inadequate exactly insofar as I am not totally submitted to the will of the Divine.

Let me put that in secular language first, then circle back to Quaker and Christian language.

I’m convinced that the only way to have a fulfilled life is to exist as authentically myself as I possibly can. I could win a dozen Nobel prizes, save humanity from nuclear disaster, and found a world religion, but if I have not lived as my authentic self I will still feel miserable and inadequate. After diverting the meteor and saving Gotham once again, I will come to this blog and post the same thing: it was all straw.

If my authentic self is as a painter, or a plumber, or a housewife, or a gardener, or a veterinary assistant, or a contemplative Trappist monk (unfortunate as I am a woman), I had better go and do that thing because I will not find fulfillment else.

If I am meant (in my inmost self, taking God right out of it) to save Gotham from a meteor, I will be a mediocre (at best) research librarian, and I will be very unhappy while doing it. Conversely, if I am meant to be a research librarian, I will not do a very good job at saving Gotham, and will be very unhappy while doing it.

What God wants for me, indeed, what God requires of me, and what I’m getting at when I talk about living a life submitted to the Divine will, is to exist only and absolutely as my perfect, authentic, self.

In order for Gotham to be saved, for theses to be researched, for houses to get painted, for veterinarians to be assisted, for gardens to be grown, and for toilets to be repaired (all the latter of which are certainly components of the first), I believe we all, whether we believe in God are not, are required to be our true and real selves.

The title of this post comes from Romans 12:1 — “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

This can come off as sort of creepy and over-demanding, like C.S. Lewis pointing out that God doesn’t want just part of us, ze wants all of us. Yet this is not because God is an overweening monster, but because being one’s true self necessarily requires all of one. One can’t be one’s perfectly true and authentic self only partially, or part of the time, because then, by definition, one is not being one’s perfectly true and authentic self. It’s like having a four-sided triangle. It can’t be done.

I see the question of submitting perfectly to Divine will and being perfectly my authentic self as being one and the same, and so I think this is a question atheists and theists alike are called to grapple with. Because I do believe in God, though, the primary way I see this and process it is via submission to God. For me, it is much easier (although still not easy at all) to figure out what God requires of me, through silent prayer and worship and contemplation, than it is to hash out exactly who I am and what I should do via purely psychological and secular mechanisms.

So I, personally, finding myself once again feeling inadequate and frustrated, unfulfilled and useless, need to again ask myself the question that has been running through my head since April: What am I doing here?

I will find the answer not in doing more, but in sitting with God—in worship, in front of my computer, throughout the comings and goings of my quotidian life—and submitting to that Divine will. If I am meant to save Gotham at all, this is the only way I believe possible to do it.

I am giving over “my” socially imposed definitions of what it means to be successful, or what I think will make me happy, and letting them be uprooted and supplanted by the Divine definition and will. And this alone is an acceptable sacrifice.


Sacred Harp

I live in a region of New England in love with its tradition. I met my husband at a contra dance; several friends are Morris dancers (and had their side perform at their wedding). I play the Irish fiddle, and Rob plays the mandolin. Suffice to say, I’m steeped in New England folk tradition . . . so how did I miss Sacred Harp until now? (Yes, its considered more Southern than from New England . . . but many of the hymns originated here, and it's quite popular.)

At any rate, I started going to sings last week (every Tuesday for two hours), and I just got back from my second. I love pretty much everything about it, but one thing I particularly appreciate is how many of the songs relate to  . . . death.

Yeah. Like that.

When all of the DEATH! DEATH! lyrics come up, we do tend to joke about it . . . “Ohh, another gloomy one!”

I love it.

If you know me, you know that I think about death all the time. Im with folks at or near their last breath. I help wash the dead and close their eyes. I sit with the dying and listen to their rattling breath. Most modern Americans . . . dont. Dont think about it, dont touch it, dont go near it. Once in nursing school, of all places youd think people might think about death, I muttered to the person sitting next to me, “Makes you think about your own mortality, doesnt it?” she gave a sort of blank stare, and said, “No, not really . . . my parents mortality, maybe.” Really? Really. So outside of work, singing Sacred Harp is the only time I get to process death with a community. 

Today I was singing these old hymns, and I suddenly thought , “Hey. My constant thoughts about death arent weird. They were normal two hundred years ago. Everyone then had the same desperate need to process death that I feel now. Hence all these hymns! Its just that were so insulated from death that we think contemplating it is morbid, think we don’t need to contemplate it at all.”

What else did we lose when we lost the constant awareness of death?


Sunday Poetry: A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Markd how to explore the vacant, vast surrounding, 
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detatched, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them. 
Till the bridge you will need be formd, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

—Walt Whitman


My Week in Ideas

Because this is an off-the-cuff sort of post, I haven't gone through and manually changed all of the dumb-quotes to curly quotes. This may not bother any of my readers, but it bothers me. 

1.) How is God expressed through history? I have no idea, but Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel does (yes, I'm still reading The Prophets): 

Hmm. I'm arrested by the analogy he makes between individual mystical experience and historic justice, but I don't know what I think of it. I do think of the Kingdom of God as something we must work towards on earth, and yet something that can only be completed with God. So does Heschel, apparently:
You know what this reminds of of? Occupy Wall Street. One of the Quaker bloggers I most admire, Micah Bales, writes often about the connections between his theology and his involvement with the Occupy movement. Our conscience is timid, but the world is ablaze with agony . . . our perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and our judgment liable to deception . . . yes. Is Occupy a modern prophetic voice? 
Oh yes. One of the most painful arguments I've gotten into with non-theists of various stripes is my rather dim view of collective human goodness. This seems to be one of those deep-down, divisive issues that reasonable people can go back and forth on endlessly and never be satisfied with the other's point of view. But yes, my idea of redemption is very closely tied to my dim view of collective human goodness. 

That's my comforting thought of the week. I loved the image of God as tiller; it's from Isaiah 28:24–29. I read somewhere that some of Heschel's thought is connected to process theology, and now I'm curious to read more.

2.) I really am tired of logical positivism. Seriously, I'm over it. My friend asked me to comment on this article, which I did at some length before Facebook ate my reply. Long story short, I think it's reasonable to apply different standards of truth to different sorts of truth-claims, I think it's reasonable to arrive at beliefs in different ways (including both intuition and "faith," a horribly abused term) so long as the belief, once arrived at, is checked by and is consonant with logic and reason, and I think religion and science genuinely make different sorts of claims about the world, although their magisteria are certainly at least partially overlapping and are often confusingly intertwined. On that note, for my birthday I asked for (and received a week early!) a copy of Michael Lynch's Truth As One and Many.

I am pleased. Publisher's blurb: "What is truth? Michael Lynch defends a bold new answer to this question. Traditional theories of truth hold that truth has only a single uniform nature. All truths are true in the same way. More recent deflationary theories claim that truth has no nature at all; the concept of truth is of no real philosophical importance. In this concise and clearly written book, Lynch argues that we should reject both these extremes and hold that truth is a functional property. To understand truth we must understand what it does, its function in our cognitive economy. Once we understand that, we'll see that this function can be performed in more than one way. And that in turn opens the door to an appealing pluralism: beliefs about the concrete physical world needn't be true in the same way as our thoughts about matters—like morality—where the human stain is deepest."
I also came across Marilynne Robinson's book Absence of Mind (yes, she of Gilead and Housekeeping fame; I have decided I like her essays much better than her fiction). Here's the publisher's blurb: 

In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality.

By defending the importance of individual reflection, Robinson celebrates the power and variety of human consciousness in the tradition of William James. She explores the nature of subjectivity and considers the culture in which Sigmund Freud was situated and its influence on his model of self and civilization. Through keen interpretations of language, emotion, science, and poetry, Absence of Mind restores human consciousness to its central place in the religion-science debate.

And some particularly pertinent snippets from the introduction: 
I actually didn't like the rest of the book enough to buy it; it was interesting, but not arresting. If I wasn't on such a tight budget, both of money and of reading time, I might have!

3.) Yes, it's my birthday in a week. I have two more years of my 20's. I have decided that my 30th birthday gift to myself will be having gotten over the aging process. Two more years to work out my existential anxiety!

4.) I can't control my reading habit. I vowed not to buy any more books until I had whittled down my "on deck" list, but today I bought:
I justified this by telling myself that I had also vowed to educate myself on church history, and especially the history of theology. With Alistair Mcgrath's work on the latter arriving in the mail soon, this is the perfect companion volume—right? Right? At any rate, it's very, very well written. I sat down in the shop and read the first two chapters in a gulp. More on this later. 

5.) I'm back in training for my next half marathon. Off for my run after this!

6.) Blog posts I loved on this week: Micah Bales with Christ is Within You . . . What are You Going to Do About It?, and Johan M. with Why Conversion? I'm usually more ecumenical in my reading, but darn, Quakers were hitting it out of the park!

7.) It's very difficult to hear absence. Every time I pronounce a death, I think of this. I usually hear a heartbeat within seconds when I place my stethoscope on a living chest. During those first few seconds when I don't, I might move my stethoscope around a little, ask the person to move, try to shut out background noise—but I very quickly hear it, and I always know it's there. When I pronounce, though, I listen for a good thirty seconds to a minute by my watch, because not hearing a heartbeat is a very difficult thing, indeed. I can never entirely shake the fear that I've missed it, that the heartbeat is just hiding from me, that this is the silence of that first second on the living chest and not an eternal silence at all, that I'll call the family and do the notification and then, somehow, I was wrong, and the person lives! Does my fear of missing something have anything to do with my belief in God, or am I reaching, here? 


Towards a Quaker Theology

I love my Quaker tradition. Most of all, I love our mysticism—how a direct experience of God is more important to us than ‘notions’ about God.

Yet, I worry that we have given up too much by giving up on theology.

I was bothered by this a great deal as we argued about homosexuality in Kenya, at the World Conference. Evangelical  Friends have a very clearly constructed idea of why homosexuality is wrong, and this idea is closely tied to their theology. The Bible is the inspired Word of God; we are meant to read the Bible for the “plain meaning” of the words; Paul says “man should not lie with man as he lies with woman; it is an abomination;” homosexuality is an abomination. Q.E.D.

In response to this, liberal Friends would typically say, “You’re wrong!” and offer an argument from experience.

I am extremely sympathetic to an argument from experience. After all, that’s how I personally came to believe that homosexual relationships are equally blessed by God. When the argument from experience is the only argument we use, though, I have the distinct feeling that we come across as unconvincing—and worse, rather arrogant.

From the perspective of an Evangelical Friend, this is saying that we are putting our own opinion above the revealed Word of God. Changing our perspective and looking at this in a context of race relations rather than theology, this might be taken as saying, “I'm a well-educated white person, and you, a less well-educated black person, are wrong because I say so.”

And honestly? Without a clear theology of what the Inward Light actually is, without an alternative Biblical hermeneutic on offer, without some kind of framework in which to place our religious experiences, I don't think we can effectively argue against that perception.

I read a lot of religious bloggers from different traditions than my own. Particularly, I love reading religious bloggers who are more conservative than I. It makes me think, widens my perspective, and exposes me to some very intellectually impressive scholarship. All that to say, I really enjoyed this post from Roger E. Olson (excerpted below), “What I admire about Calvinists.” (Olson himself is an Arminian.)

“I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches . . . They [non-Calvinists] have picked up pieces of this and that (theologies) and pasted them together in ways that seem good to them without any real reflection on the outcome . . . They [Calvinists] always seem to have a ready answer to questions about practical matters such as preaching, praying, worshiping, witnessing, etc., and how those are affected by their Calvinism. . . .”

In the same way, Quakers need to be able to articulate our answers to practical questions such as how to discern whether or not to speak in unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, how to discern whether someone else was truly led during worship or whether they outran their guide (and how to deal with it if they did), how to lift up and nurture ministers, how to support leadings, what we mean when we talk about “holding someone in the light” (is that intercessory prayer?), how to defend same gender marriages, what support and advice to offer people going through difficult times (“my daughter is dying—where is God in this?”), and how those practices and beliefs are grounded in our Quakerism.

Personally, as a liberal Quaker and as a Christian (in my heart I'm a Conservative Friend in a liberal Yearly Meeting), my response to the homosexuality debate is roughly as follows: The Bible is not the Word of God; Christ, who is the Word of God, taught us that to love God and love our neighbor is the first commandment, on which hang all the other laws; we must always interpret the Bible by that commandment; if a verse in the Bible cannot be reconciled with the Love of Christ (which we experience internally as the Inward Light) then between the verse and Christ we must pick Christ.

I'm not saying that liberal Quakers everywhere must become Christian. What I am saying is that unless we engage more deeply in our traditions, and in some serious religious thought, we risk becoming unable to communicate with other faith traditions, with the religious seekers we want so much to welcome, and even with those who think differently in the wider family of Friends. We weaken our ability to be truly Quaker.


Poetry Sundays: Holy Sonnet VII

Why Sunday poetry? Because I decided to switch from Tuesday poetry, that’s why!

Holy Sonnet VII
John Donne

At the round earths imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall oerthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for thats as good
As if Thou hadst seald my pardon with Thy blood.