Saturday, November 04, 2006

finding God again through yoga and ineptitude

I've been very remiss about things lately, a prime example of what Paul said about doing everything but what we think we should. A dreadful example of it. David from Kwakerskripturestudy was wondering about me, not only because I wasn't commenting there but because I hadn't added anything here either.

Frankly, I'd hoped more people would read what I'd already posted here. But that ain't the way of it; we're writing for the birdcages (no matter how good our stuff is) just like when I published/edited Street Light (an interesting time, while it lasted.) Virtual birdcages, and where are the virtual birds to whitewash them?

Certainly part of this is that I really do love games, even Civilization. Which I think must be a bad influence; I wouldn't be surprised if GW plays it. Next time someone tells you about The Clash of Civilizations, nod wisely and remember this game. Where you meet all this great leaders from the past civilizations of the world, and all of them act like Cheney on speed. A loathsome crew, and how can one cope without being just as vile?

Luckily, virtual soldiers don't bleed. They don't come home in baskets or end up pushing shopping carts. You see them die, leaving nothing behind, but there'll be another just like them any time you reload the game.

We're different. We're manifestations of God. Even manifestations of God playing games while our projects languish and our wives complain that we're "playing That Stupid Game again!"

I haven't been altogether happy with myself.

What's wrong? I really do love to play games; get used to it! I don't want to wake up six months from now and realize that all I've done was to conquer the virtual Chinese and Spanish over and over and over, but I want to learn how this game works, even if it (fairly often) gets boring. Where else can I practice being a human being and see how it works, without harming myself or others? That is, after all, how we're designed to learn, by practice. I'm not sure that learning to be Attila the Hun is the best thing; go teaches better lessons (try!) My go teacher once said, "Improve your character and you'll improve your game 100%", and by now I know exactly what he meant. (Alas!)

I've made some progress on my yoga, not enough because the world keeps impinging, and because I've gotten old and stiff between the ears as well as in my back. I'm having to learn to give up progress, and thus I make progress, all the same. Because the point is to use the postures you can't do anymore, that you've done wrong and neglected and half-forgotten, as prayers for guidance, into what you can do that'll be best for body and mind.

Not getting myself sucked into an Officially Christian Quaker mailing list. I'd enjoyed some back-&-forth with a woman on Quaker-L, who suggested I join, but when I did, I found myself confronted by a demand that I not bother their simple minds unless I agreed to their statement about Jesus' place in our lives. I wasn't even sure what they meant by it, let alone what I would mean if I said it. So I thought about removing myself, and didn't, and six months later, when the Amish were being talked about both there and on the La Jolla Meeting list, I got confused and responded to a post from the wrong list. Oh well, here I am in the midst of them! Pretty soon, I'm defending the Hindu, and the moderator isn't objecting. (I may have had a couple posts dumped; they were either posted or rejected when my server was down the other day.) But I am definitely finding myself Anathema!

That's not good. It doesn't leave one eager to write more. One could be attacked!--One must be careful, not to be misunderstood.

What has been good about it... One person engaged another in an unpleasant, proof-text-quoting attack over his idea of "following Jesus" vs the attacker's notion that Jesus' role was to gain us forgiveness of our sins by sacrificing his life, after which we need do nothing so strenuous (and indeed had better not!)

All this traditional--and utterly senseless--Stuff helped put things back in perspective, gave me something to write about. Only Jesus could save me from this nonsense! There's this Sermon on the Mount, early in Matthew, where he talks about God, how he loves us like a (good) Father, doesn't wish us any harm, does good to us whether we've been bad or good. That makes sense.

We need to believe Jesus here--because it's the truth, and if we don't believe it, we won't know it, and we could get in trouble. People do. They get inflated ideas of their own importance, and of all the silly things they've learned, and it's not that God punishes them--but they do really terrible things to self and others, in this game. They'd be endlessly suffering, stuck in it eternally, if they didn't see through it sooner or later.

Once, having neglected my yoga for too long, I determined to make up for it by a strenuous effort. I'd forced myself into that posture where you lie down between your own heels... and I couldn't get out of it. I panicked, and jerked myself upright, and something went "TWANG!!!" in my lower back. I literally dragged myself onto the living room couch, where I spent the night wondering if I would ever walk again. (But I had the most wonderful feeling of energy lighting up everything from my butt to my brain!) The next day I needed crutches to interview someone for the paper.

I needed to trust God. I needed to pay attention to how things were in that particular moment--not how I wanted to be, but how I was--and accept that, let God show me the right way to work with it. I would have missed an interesting night on the couch, of course.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Way to Quaker Renewal Part I

When I began coming regularly to meeting, some 15 years ago, I'd been acquainted with Friends since high school. For a long time, I hadn't seen much point in worshiping with them, but suddenly I very much wanted to. They appeared to be natural allies for the activist task I'd been given, but primarily the Meeting offered a way to center myself in the Spirit that had led me to that work.

I soon saw that I was both a Friend and a stranger. The Quaker form of worship made sense; it also moved and enlightened me. I liked the people and found inspiration in the history; but these people were very far from their historical founders. In my small Meeting, there were few inclined to join in my activism, and none who agreed as to its urgency.

Why did Friends seem overwhelmingly old, white, financially comfortable, and effectively unconcerned with poor people's suffering? Why, if our tradition embodied Truth, as I felt it did-- Why was no one moved to share it with our neighbors caught up in the World's turmoil? How had the raging fire of the 17th Century become the cooling ashes of the 20th?

When I later came to Pendle Hill, I was curious about that, but I was still yearning to answer the operative question: How can Friends become the movement we were called to be, so many years ago?

Many Friends share this concern, and try a multitude of remedies: becoming more explicitly Christian, excavating early Quaker writings and customs, abjuring agenda-worship in our business meetings. Some of us seek truth in other traditions, while others complain of Friends losing our Truth in a stew of "consumer religion." It's all symptomatic of not knowing the cure, but wanting it desperately.

I considered Friends from another angle: too attached to sweetness and light, too adverse to intellectual strife. We are, I said, unable to attract converts like early Friends because we won't struggle for the agreement needed among ourselves before we can say what we believe and why anyone might care to join us. This made an interesting flawed pamphlet--which I circulated to Friends on the internet, but couldn't satisfactorily finish, finding myself too wishy-washy to want useless conflict in my own meeting.

The kind of conflict I'd envisioned between people who'd rather find new truth than confirm their prejudices is not what people generally do. And when we confront each other's ideology-- the set of beliefs supporting a way of life that someone doesn't want to change-- That is certainly not likely.

The conflict I'd most like Friends to address is the one between Comfortable Friends and "you Hair-shirt People." While it galls me to be caught in the middle of any road, I find people acquainted with the Spirit in both groups. But we all ascribe too much importance to physical and human factors, whether for good or for ill.

To face the situation squarely, we'd need to follow some of Paul's advice: "to offer your very selves to God: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the patterns of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect."

So far as we have not let our minds be remade, we are unavoidably duped by the Powers of this world.

Quaker Renewal II : Powers and Principalities?

What kind of language is that? What does it mean, and should we care? It's poetic language, and it refers to things we don't comprehend easily via other ways of speaking. The author of Ephesians referred to struggling, "not against men, but against Principalities and Powers." [6:12] Christians for nearly 2000 years since then have found those words enlightening, including Walter Wink, a contemporary theologian and lifelong activist.

According to Wink: "We moderns cannot bring ourselves by any feat of will or imagination to believe in the real existence of these mythological entities that traditionally have been lumped under the general category "principalities and powers." But this statement begins a series of books for moderns, exploring that very concept. Because it fits too well with phenomena we encounter--not (he admits) as "invisible demonic beings flapping around in the sky, occasionally targeting some luckless mortal with their malignant payload of disease, lust, possession, or death"-- but in the entrenched background assumptions of people who rule and speak for us, the intractable perversities of institutional policy, the invisible blind spots in even our own well-considered opinions.[Naming the Powers pg 5 Fortress Press, 1984]

His predecessor William Stringfellow, a Harlem attorney active in the movements for civil rights and against the US/Vietnam war, also found use for this terminology. "There is nothing particularly mysterious, superstitious, or imaginary about principalities... The realities to which the biblical terms 'principalities and powers' refer are quite familiar to modern society, though they may be called by different names. What the Bible calls 'principalities and powers" are called in contemporary language 'ideologies,' 'institutions,' and 'images.'

"A principality, whatever its particular form and variety, is a living reality, distinguishable from human and other organic life. It is not made or instituted by men, but, as with men and all creation, made by God for his own pleasure." [Free in Obedience, Seabury Press 1964 pg 52]

Stringfellow gave examples. Marilyn Monroe, when he wrote, was a potent 'image.' Although she herself had recently died, "there were two lives that claimed and used that name, one a principality, the other a person... In fact, every person is accompanied in his life by an image; he is often controlled or destroyed by his image, and often it survives him." [pg 53]

Hitler was a less benign example: "It may well be that long before his actual suicide the person named Hitler had been altogether obliterated by the principality called Hitler; that the person had indeed been possessed by a demon of that name, and that the devastation and massacre wrought in the name of Hitler was not the work of just some dark genius of the man, nor even of the man's insanity or gross criminality, but of the awesome demonic power that possessed him." [pg 55]

Few of us have images of such power, but everyone's image enjoys a little worship, and so we must struggle against demands that we "give up [our] life as a person to the service and homage of the image." [55] Not only are Quakers not immune; Quaker traditions of dedication and service may well make us particularly susceptible!

"Institutions" need little explanation; we know many examples, some few of which may even be benign. But "in the end, the claim for service which an institution makes upon a man is an invitation to surrender his life in order that the institution be preserved and prosper. It is an invitation to bondage." [57] Of course this is perfectly customary and taken for granted, but it deserves more thought than it gets.

"Ideologies" include the obvious pejorative examples--Communism, fascism, racism and the like but also: "Humanism, capitalism, democracy, rationalism--though Americans think of these as benevolent powers." [57]

Stringfellow's categories naturally overlap, and can't cover all possible examples; "Sex, fashion, and sports are all among the angelic powers." So, particularly, is "money." [59]

"Like all men and all things, the angelic powers and principalities are fallen and become demonic powers. 'Demonic' does not mean evil; the word refers rather to death, to fallenness." [62]

Fallen? There's another unsettling word. Modern-day Quakers don't often call anything "fallen," or "demonic." Most modern Quakers probably don't believe in "The Fall".

A few hundred years ago, The Fall was a common bottom-line assumption. And now that we don't agree with it, we are quite sure there is no truth in the notion, certainly nothing important that we should have to wrestle with.

Isn't that change itself an example?--the tracks of a Power at work among us?

Here is a new, widely-shared, tenacious gestalt of attitude and belief: that only what we can see is real. It has made itself thoroughly at home, as if it had always been the norm. There is no particular evidence supporting it and yet it maintains itself in human minds, setting the context of what we will think and what we will attempt, not needing to "possess" anyone by force because it so seldom comes to our attention, let alone our suspicion.

The notion of The Fall was equally unquestioned. One reason for George Fox's continual trouble with the authorities was his belief that he had been freed from the domination of Sin within this bodily life-- something they considered a blasphemous impossibility. But Fox agreed with them that sin afflicted the bulk of humanity, not only in their inequities and cruelties but in what we would consider their harmless amusements. Barclay, writing for non-Quakers--but with no evident disagreement from Fox or others--says:

"All Adam's posterity (or mankind), both Jew and Gentiles, as to the first Adam, or earthly man, is fallen, degenerated, and dead, deprived of the sensation or feeling of this inward testimony or seed of God, and is subject unto the power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he sows in men's hearts, while they abide in this natural and corrupted state, from whence it comes, that not their words and deeds only, but all their imaginations, are evil perpetually in the sight of God, as proceeding from this depraved and wicked seed." [Apology pg 11]

I'm not calling this an accurate model of human nature, or one we should return to. There was a serious flaw in it, or rather in this half of the overall concept: the notion that there could be a human nature separate from God. Our connectedness to God was then tacked on, in the form of "Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world"--to explain the presence of everything good in us.

Unfortunately, this description still consigned "our own will" to the "natural and corrupted" side of things. "Quietism", the belief that we can best serve God by annihilation of everything "creaturely" about us, was consequently widespread among Friends for over a hundred years.

Fenelon, a Catholic mystic of the time, was an influential example of such thinking. Although his letters reveal him as a wise, gently humorous and compassionate spiritual adviser, his theology was bound by the same harsh judgment of all things merely human: "Let [God] do as He sees fit with you. Be content to obey His will in all things, and to merge your will concerning everything in His. What right have you, who are not your own, to any intrinsic possession? A slave has no proprietary rights, how much less the creature which in itself is mere sin and nothingness, and which can possess nought save by the gift of God?" [The Royal Way of the Cross,tr H. Sidney Lear, 1980, The Community of Jesus, Inc. Orleans, MA 02633 pg 160]

John Woolman was no less a Quietist: "In true silence strength is renewed, and the mind is weaned from all things save as they may be enjoyed in the divine will; and a lowliness in outward living, opposite to worldly honour, becomes truly acceptable to us. In the desire after outward gain, the mind is prevented from a perfect attention to the voice of Christ; yet being weaned from all things, except as they may be enjoyed in the divine will, the pure light shines into the soul. Where the fruits of the spirit which is of this world are brought forth by many who profess to be led by the Spirit of truth, and cloudiness is felt to be gathering over the visible Church, the sincere in heart, who abide in true stillness, and are exercised therein before the Lord for His name's sake, have knowledge of Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings; and inward thankfulness is felt at times, that through Divine love our own wisdom is cast out, and that forward, active part in us is subjected, which would rise and do something without the pure leadings of the spirit of Christ."

In the midst of a highly-effective campaign for an issue that intensely concerned him--persuading American Friends to free their slaves--he says: "I was deeply engaged in inward cries to the Lord for help, that I might stand wholly resigned, and move only as He might be pleased to lead me."

Later, in a time of sickness, he "heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, 'John Woolman is dead.' " When he thought about it, he gratefully concluded that the words "meant no more than the death of my own will."

Is our "own will" necessarily opposed to God's? We have all experienced collisions between God's will and our own-- and would prefer this to happen less often-- but how could anything in this creation be entirely separate from God?

There is merit in the Quietist program to avoid being enslaved to our capricious personal wants and errors, but not in the assumptions used to justify it.

Some sayings attributed to Jesus could suggest an ethic of self-annihilation, but they aren't consistent with the teaching that God is our loving Father. Would God crush the wills he gave us?-- or would he guide those wills toward wanting our true good? These quotes, I think, were misinterpreted in a spirit better suited to earlier times--not the Spirit of Modernism that so befuddles modern Americans, but a different Power, pretending to absolute truth and unlimited authority as these things characteristically do.

Aren't I arbitrarily adopting one notion from the Christian tradition--the Powers--and dismissing a related notion, The Fall? No, I find some truth in both, and want to bring that truth into this present milieu, so different and so much like the one where they developed.

I say that a bible such as the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Bible, or the Koran--is itself a principality of great power, whether for good and for misuse. (Consider how Romans 13: "Be subject to the governing authorities"--was once used by German churches to blind and paralyze themselves in the face of the Nazi regime.) Such things are not given to render us foolproof or to ossify our prejudices, but rather to help us find truths we might otherwise miss in the routine course of our lives.

Quaker Renewal Part III: The Truth of "The Fall"

So what is the truth, in calling ourselves and our world "fallen"?

First of all, none of us ever becomes that ideal person we once thought we were, and might still want to be. All our efforts in that direction collide with what we will want at other moments.

If we make our ideal more "flexible," make "giving ourselves some slack" a source of self-satisfaction, strive for "balance"--we can only teeter.

We can not simply be, like Adam--perfectly unconcerned with whether he might be developing "fruit addiction," or whether he "should be eating more fruit"--or whether that fruit over there on that tree God said he should stay away from would agree with him, or not.

He could not even wonder, was it wrong of him to wonder what it tasted like? Would it be wrong to disobey God? What did "wrong" mean? He was not even capable of criminal intent! As God points out, "I am not punishing Adam and his descendants for the act, but... rather the fruit in question is poisonous in its own right and its effects, unfortunately, last countless generations." [Smullyan, "Is God a Taoist" from The Tao is Silent ,1977, also available in The Mind's I, Douglas Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett,1981]

So what was that poisonous tree--that attractive nuisance--doing in the nursery with God's hapless children? Who let the snake loose in there, unsupervised? Whatever this story means, we can't say it caught God by surprise. We might not like the outcome, but it must have been somehow necessary.

In some interpretations, the snake really gave us wisdom. "The Knowledge of Good and Evil." Some wisdom. Adam looked at the perfect body God had made for him, and "saw that he was naked."

Clothing taboos and fashions, they vary with the climate and the age. Guilt doesn't. Adam's body had been nude from the moment he was created; what he wanted to hide was his self, his ego. Adam's soul was showing; he was afraid to let God see or to look at it himself, and he didn't have a thing to put over it--no new accomplishment to brag about, nothing to say, not a thought or a pain or a story to tell, just juice on his chin and a real bad feeling in his stomach.

He said, "The woman You gave me made me do it." She in turn pointed to the snake. The snake just sat there, saying nothing. We should be so wise.

People can take this sort of fiction, work out "the" meaning, and think they've got the whole nourishment of it. Not so, that chewy fictional husk provides fiber and gravel for the digestive process. The wisdom of ancient people went into their stories as simply and naturally as their scientific and historic misconceptions. If there were only one meaning--like "Original Sin," for example, or "Don't blame others!"--we could dispense with the story, as people lately have been inclined to do.

We were given this story--and not a self-help book, or a theological treatise--because what is meant by "The Fall" is all-pervasive, too complex and too simple to figure out. But it is not a fictional condition.

We can live, mentally, in a no-fault, harm-reduction universe. But not naturally. Coercion, punishment and deterrents are the way of our world. Practices based on such concepts masquerade as "justice," but seldom touch the greatest wrongs, nor ever run out of petty criminals to torment.

The Fall is both personal and collective. You are blessed, if you've never treated anyone unforgivably. You may think you haven't, and then wake up remembering, in the middle of some very long night. God has forgiven you; even the person you wronged has forgiven, but she still remembers and so do you.

Maybe you've avoided that sort of affliction. There are still those myriad institutional wrongs, and while you may have worked against them, in every way you knew, on every occasion that presented itself--They still go on; and you can't even buy a loaf of bread without contributing, in some measure, to their perpetration.

There are two basic elements attributed to this "curse." They constitute the basic conditions of human life, in the world we know. We cause, and undergo, suffering and guilt. And we die.

Death, too, can be considered as a principality. In Stringfellow's schema, remember, death is the ruling power of this world, "greater, apart from God himself, than any other reality in existence."[Free, page 69] "...In the epoch of the Fall, as the Bible designates this scene-every value, every goal, every policy, every action, every routine, every enterprise of each and every principality has the elemental significance of death, notwithstanding any contrary appearances. This is eminently so with respect to nations, for nations are, as Revelation indicates, the archetypical principalities. All other assorted, diverse principalities resemble them, imitate them, and substitute for them.

"All virtues which nations elevate and idolize--military prowess, material abundance, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, high culture, racial pride, trade, prosperity, conquest, sport, language or whatever--are ancillary and subservient to the moral presence of death in the nation. And it is the same with the surrogate nations--the other principalities, like the corporations and conglomerates, ideologies and bureaucracies, and authorities and institutions of every name and description." [Stringfellow, _An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land_, 1973, Word Incorporated, pg 67]

Obviously, to make war is to pay tribute to death. Whether or not we would put it in those terms, Quakers and increasingly many others recognize war as a great evil, and work to stop each war we find our nation pursuing. But all these wars are symptomatic of "death incarnate in society, and not the other way around... The notion has been widespread that the death-purpose evident in the war could somehow be undone if the war could be ended. But that is as false as it is naive; this Indochina war did not sponsor the power of death in American society. The war rather expresses, grotesquely, the moral presence of death which has always been in America, as in other principalities. And the end of the war promises no end, no diminishment even, to that presence."[Ethic pg 70]

That lingering 'presence of death' is far more than our habitual national faith in American military power. "With these creatures, as with human beings, it is never quite possible to express either the whole personality or the multiple attributes and abilities of a principality in a name, much less that of the legion of principalities and powers. The biblical practice of invoking many names or of interchanging various names, when speaking of principalities, is a help in grasping the many-faceted character and versatility of these powers. After all, what is being described and designated is a form of life, a creatureliness, which is potent and mobile and diverse, not static or neat or simply defined by what it may now or then be called. So such names as are used for the principalities, either in the biblical witness or in common talk, are necessarily suggestive, intuitive, emphatic." [pg 79]

Thus what Stringfellow calls 'the presence of death' is involved in such seemingly unrelated, universal human preoccupations as personal wealth, social roles, occupations and positions, everything that might conceivably provide material for an obituary. In practice, we've generally been taught: "Seek first your own material and empirical welfare and you will think you are justified in your existence." That if you "make work your monument, make it the reason for your life, ... you will survive your death in some way, until the monument itself is discarded or crumbles in some other way."[Stringfellow, _Instead of Death_, Seabury Press 1963, page 39] And so our familar American success-worship is intrinsically tied to fears for our survival, especially against the forms of social death: low-wage work, unemployment, homelessness and the various forms of madness that feed on personal failure.

This unexpected connection comes directly from the tale of Eden. Harsh labor and death are the specific consequences of the Fall : "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"The fallenness of work, the broken relationship between men and the rest of creation which work is, involves both the alienation of men from nature and from the rest of creation, including the principalities and powers. In work men lose their dominion over the principalities and are in bondage to the principalities. Instead of men ruling the great institutions--corporations, unions, and so on--men are ruled by the great institutions. And the claim over a man's life that all principalities make is idolatrous, that is, the claim that the significance and destiny of a man depends upon his service to the survival and preservation of the principality." [ page 42] It is no better to be relegated to "prolonged, enforced idleness," as happens to many in our country. And of course, leisure devoted to filling time is "as much an anticipation of death, as much an enslavement to the world, as work is... The burden of work, which is the threat of death, is neither mitigated nor overcome in the choice of work, in the product of work, in the reward for work, in non-work, in the moral vanity of work." [pg 43-44]

The way out, from this seemingly inescapable futility, is through Christ. "The work of God in Christ is God making the world for Himself." [pg 45]

If your experience of the word 'Christ' has been as a stick sanctimonious people have tried to beat you with, this kind of talk may well make you itch. And what, you might ask, does it mean to be "in" Christ? We are offered an exit, but it's not at all clear, how that door opens.

Furthermore, we have arrived at another false dichotomy. Earlier we brought up the traditional notion of an isolated Bad Self, which could only be fixed by Christ aka everything good in us. Now we're talking about an entirely-fallen world, oppressed by the Powers, which can only be fixed by Christ, aka the work of God toward healing its fallen condition.

But there is one world, not two, and only one God at work throughout.

Before the Fall, remember, God looked at what he had made, and saw that it was good. "The Powers are also no less the good creations of a good God than we are, and they are no more fallen than we." [Unmasking the Powers, Walter Wink, 1986, Fortress Press, pg 96] The world is a better place--at the very least, a more interesting one--for the existence of its manifold variety of beings. If tigers, mountains and storms are beautiful, and also can kill us, so it is with powers or principalities. "Angel", after all, is a word for this same kind of entity. And so is "demon," although early Christians made it a word exclusively for evil spirits. But to their contemporary Jews, these "gods" had been merely various "angels" of other nations, and even the Christians came to acknowledge the "daemon" of Socrates as something basically good.

What makes people describe these entities as 'in rebellion against God' is their demand to be worshiped. This demand is not a simple matter of enjoying little rituals of appreciation, or the sacrifice of an occasional child (What else do people sacrifice their children to, anyway, but to some power conceived-of as "their own good"?) It is the powers' perverse appetite--for the "respect, honor, and devotion" appropriate to their creator--that throws them into discord.

But why have these "good creations of a good God" become rebellious and hostile toward us?

We can speak of the principalities as 'living' beings, because they act as if they had "a will of their own," tenaciously resisting human efforts to bring them under our control. But they are said to be subject to the Rumpelstiltskin Effect: if we can name them correctly, we can at least resist being enslaved by them.

Mis-naming has a different kind of power. The child who is told he is "a bad boy" too effectively may never manage to be altogether "good." Misnaming confuses our speech. For an individual, it can impair the ability to identify worthwhile goals or to strive for them effectively. Within a group of people, it must distort communications and disconnect their conscious intentions from whatever effects will actually ensue. To misname a principality--a fluid and half-metaphorical creature by its very nature--must fragment it into a mist of images, all of them trying to pass under the same false i.d. (What, for example, has happened to words like "love"? "Freedom"? "Faith"? If someone were to glimpse the reality behind a label like "Christ"--How could she convey it to people who think "Jesus" just means George Bush's imaginary friend, who tells him to start wars?)

Quaker Renewal IV: Satan's Shifty Role

'Death' may not be the ideal name for what Stringfellow was talking about. "Not so very long ago," he writes, "the presence and power of death were recognized by men as the devil." [Free pg 69] Now, of course, we find the traditional image of the devil absurd, while death remains a bogey that all are taught to fear. But we have, if we attend to them, intuitions that death isn't quite what we've been told it was.

Anne & I once visited a friend in the hospital; we'd all been attempting Spanish so we brought a Mexican children's game, tiny cards with pictures and Spanish labels. When our friend drew the card for 'Death', he said: "That's my friend!" It was a statement of fact, not morbid or self-pitying, simply a recognition that his age and failing health had cost him the things he'd most loved--his piano and the generous hospitality he once enjoyed sharing with everyone. Now he was merely surviving, not complaining but with nothing left to cling to here.

The Bible says, quite clearly, that even concrete, physical death is a temporary condition that God can and will overcome.

Meanwhile, unless this is really a punishment for Adam getting caught in the Fruit Trap, something in the common Good-and-Evil Consciousness must make death appropriate to our needs, much as naps are deemed suitable for small children--not deemed suitable by them, but by everyone who has to live with them. Death, in itself, is unwanted, but if we understand it as an illusion, and see the alternative as endless suffering and stagnation--which we would otherwise fall into in our present mindset--there's no need to call it an evil.

Death is the enemy most directly overcome by the Resurrection. But the traditional designation, for the power that dominates human life in our historical experience, is 'Satan'. And the Christian Bible supports this. In the synoptic gospels, immediately after he meets John, Jesus goes out into the wilderness, where Satan comes to tempt him. Satan shows him the kingdoms of this world. "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." [Luke 4:6] The state of the world we share is evidence for that claim.

The few times he appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, "Satan" is one of God's heavenly entourage, "the Accuser," an angel who does inflict harm, but only with God's permission. Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelations says that 'satan' "is a Persian word that relates to the role and function of a secret service agent whose task is to test loyalty to the king by putting forward probing questions and then reporting the disloyal to the king for punishment. The Greek name for this tester of loyalties is diabolos, from whence comes our devil, or 'accuser.' Originally this 'Satan' was simply one of the cosmic sky servants around the Throne of God, doing God's work (as in Job 1:6-12.) But the traditions of post-exilic Israel gave this title to a sky servant who was [said] to have led a 'palace revolution' against God and was subsequently thrown out of the sky to the earth with sky servant followers (as in Rev 12: 7-9)." [Bruce J. Malina & John J. Pilch, 2000 Augsburg Fortress pg54]

Walter Wink devotes a chapter of Unmasking the Powers to analyzing the Biblical references to "Satan", and comes to a similar description. Satan might have become rebellious through an excess of zeal, but he has a legitimate function. "So accustomed are most of us to thinking of Satan as purely evil," says Wink, "that we tend to read this interpretation into passages where there is nothing of the kind..."

Wink refers us to Luke [ 22:31-34] where Jesus tells Peter: "Satan demanded to have you [plural] that he might shift you [plural] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular] that your [singular] faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.' And he said to him, ' Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death.' He said, 'I tell you, Peter, that the cock will not crow today, until you three times deny that you know me."

Satan, Wink says, "is God's sifter, the left hand of God, whose task it is to sift out the impurities in the disciples' commitment to God. Had Peter been fully conscious of his frailty and flightiness, he would never have responded with such bravado... Satan has made a legitimate request, that [the disciples] be put to the test. Jesus has to grant Satan's request. He does not pray that they be delivered from the test, but only that their faith may not fail through it. Satan is depicted here as being able to accomplish something that Jesus had not been able to achieve during his ministry. If we refuse to recognize our own evil, and take refuge, like Peter, in claims of righteousness, our own evil comes up to meet us through events triggered by our very unconsciousness..."

Wink finds several such New Testament passages, where Satan appears as an agent of repentance.

Ignorant of pain, Adam and Eve reached out and learned something new. We all understand, now, what the word "mistake" means. (There are many things we've needed to learn that way, and now we hope we've learned enough of them!) 'Satan,' so far as that means the process which manifests and punishes our capacity for evil, must be a necessary part of what enlightens us.

Quaker Renewal V: Bedeviled By Goodness

It's an odd coincidence, that Lucifer--meaning "light-bearer," and also the morning star--should be another name applied to the Devil. [I've found some Bible literalists on the web seriously bothered by this, since Rev. 22:16 calls Jesus "the bright and morning star," and only the Devil, they say, would want us to confuse Jesus with himself. The King James version evades the problem by translating Isaiah 14:12 as: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" The original Hebrew probably referred to a resplendent king of Babylon, but does mean, literally, Venus as a morning star.]

More troublesome is the fact that the Inner Light, as Early Friends described it, was supposed to first appear as an influence that searched out and showed them their sins. "...I turned them to the divine light of Christ and his spirit that let them see all their thoughts, words, and actions, that were evil, that they had thought , and acted; with which light they might see their sins and with the same light they might see their savior, Christ Jesus, to save them from their sins, and that there was their first step to peace--to stand still in the light that showed their sin and transgressions and showed them how they were strangers to the covenant of promise, without God in the world, and in the Fall of old Adam, and in the darkness and death; and with the same light they may see Christ that died for them, who is their way to God and their redeemer and savior." [Journal of George Fox, A Revised Edition by John L. Nickalls, London Yearly Meeting 1975 pg 117.]

This seems to make Satan's vision of our deformities a prerequisite for their cure. In John 8:44, however, Jesus calls Satan "a liar." Certainly, we should expect that habit, in the chief ruler of this lie-infested world. But more specifically, our Accuser intrinsically slanders humanity, omitting the most important truth: that "in God's sight we are precious, beautiful, beloved, of infinite worth, and gifted with untapped potentialities of almost infinite reach." [Unmasked pg 27.]

If Satan has a redemptive function, why is he also portrayed as a malicious enemy, intent solely on corrupting us? Satan--like any principality--changes his apparent shape in response to different people's expectations and behavior. "How Satan appears to us will... be at least in part a function of how we have responded to the choices set before us. If we drift with the collective roles and expectations, or yield to regressively instinctual behavior, or are caught in egocentric strategies for self-aggrandizement without reference to the whole, or actually opt for what we know to be wrong, we augment Satan's power as a force for evil... if we are willing to risk the uncertain path of seeking God's will, and to allow our egos to undergo the mortification necessary to allow the greater self to emerge, then Satan appears as God's Servant, and even our mistakes can become the catalysts of our transformation. (Romans 8:28["All things work for good for those who love God."]) [Unmasking pg 30]

Does this imply--contrary to Stringfellow's thinking--that we really can control the principalities? No, we can render them more monstrous by our mistakes, but that's hardly what we want. To actually restore dominion over the principalities, we must risk that "uncertain path of seeking God's will."

God's will may well render some power more accountable to humanity. Helplessness is an aspect of death, not life. But the truth in the Quietist position remains: The only safe way to exercise dominion is in the context of God's ultimate authority.

Isn't all this "just a metaphor, and a fantastic one at that"? Anyone who thinks thus should reconsider the value of "metaphor"--not just as a useless ornament in a pointless sport called "literature--but as our heuristic method for extending human language towards any phenomena it doesn't readily grasp directly.

God might, or might not, have provided a sort of astral space in which beings with names like 'The Angel of General Motors' or 'The Spirit of Timely Toenail Clipping' can form alliances, mate, and wrestle for human souls. An ocean doesn't need a physical brain to model an incredibly complex differential equation before our eyes, neither does a computer need consciousness to work through computations that would take inordinate time and effort for a human being. What matters is that a process goes on, in which various abstractions compete for our idolatrous regard, and those which succeed, bedevil us.

It is something in our nature (which people have called our 'Knowledge of Good and Evil') that makes that regard idolatrous. And that, above all, is a need for coherence--without which, we might not have even a stable identity.

Some people strategize their way explicitly and obsessively through their lives; others simply freeze helplessly until a bystander takes pity--or until some catastrophe relieves them of the decision. But everyone has characteristic methods for life's various exigencies, whether they're things we've tried in desperation, or things we've seen done by people we admire. These are what become our primary idols, our ruling principles--and even if we make "spontaneity" our master, we need to learn some way of "doing" it! When an ancient philosopher spoke of the eye as "the chief obstacle to seeing", he was pointing to this kind of difficulty.

A "virtue", in its original meaning, was a "strength." There was even an order of Medieval angels called "Virtues." When we indulge our Quakerly love of ethical virtues, we should remember that these are qualities of God, not substitutes. We can say that "God is love," but God is more than anything else we call "love". Love is mere illusion, without truth--while "truth", without love, may only be the Accuser dressed up for the courtroom.

Is "Christ," then, a power?--and "God", too , a power? The words are. Mighty things have been done in those names, for good and for ill.

It can be hard, for unbelievers, to separate the Reality behind such words from various descriptions people have put forward. Many descriptions have been given us as aids to recognizing that Reality--but we can unwittingly make them an obstacle for others. It isn't even that such descriptions, by and large, are inaccurate--but rather irrelevant.

The essence of "idolatry" is putting your trust in something less than the Living God: weapons, money, doctors or doctrines, any of a number of things. It is not, so much, a crime--more like putting your love letters in the wrong box. So there's no need to debate whether one person or another is "guilty," but rather, have we been courting the true Reality--or something "made with human hands"?

Quaker Renewal VI: How All This Applies to Friends

The Society of Friends was founded on the practice of waiting silently for God to reveal Godself. Early Friends were eager for such a revelation--being born into a world where political and religious authority were visibly unstable, while God's intention--the key to recognizing any true claim to authority--was subject to intense public dispute.

In the world we know, the hope of knowing God directly seems lost--even among many Friends. Among the American public, the need for God drives many people into the arms of the fundamentalist "God," a power whose passion for sexual conventionality is matched only by his general indifference to war, economic injustice and human suffering. Many others, repelled by that bogey, reject all concepts of God as a consciously and effectively active being.

For many years, now, Friends' traditional emphasis on embodying our beliefs in action, and our relative unconcern with belief systems have brought us many conscientious but not particularly devout new members. Contemporary Friends tend to favor peace, and agree that sitting in silence is a good thing, but those may be the only beliefs we have in common. The idea that God exists and can be known through silent waiting--the one support on which the whole Quaker way was built--does not seem to be generally accepted or even missed.

I can only conclude that sitting in silence--without the intention of knowing God better--has, overall, no direct religious effects. And so my long-cherished hope, shared with many Friends: That the Society of Friends might flourish here as it did in Cromwell's England, drawing multitudes to God, away from the false fears and false hopes of our American media delirium may be another false hope. It asks the Society of Friends--a great spiritual power, but merely a power--to accomplish what only God can do. As my wife once said, expecting a human being to give what has to come from God--can drive one to hatred. And so one poor spirit--that angel charged with maintaining the Society of Friends--endures the bewildered disappointment of many of us who love it.

Over and over through the centuries, God has brought forth spiritual movements. Each time people are filled with enthusiasm, see God at work in and around them, are willing to face death (or even embarrassment) for the new light they see. The spirit of the movement is new-born from God, innocent, shining with hope and fresh revelations. Even so, it is manifested in particular people who must interpret the vision in terms comprehensible to their contemporaries. Increasingly it falls under the domination of fallen human beings--and begins to seek dominion over them. And then, like a kitten growing up into a sedate adult cat, it solidifies and becomes merely the angel of another church.

Friends began with a stronger foundation. Although George Fox continually studied the Bible, his doctrines emphasized the "Spirit who gave forth the Scriptures." The Bible confirmed that we should come to know that Spirit, and everything else would follow. While many Protestants found that same doctrine, they did not read the Bible so freely, but felt that fallen humankind should seek truth primarily in biblical texts as filtered through established interpretations. And so their churches increasingly confined God to what had been written, forgetting to look for God before their eyes and listen for the Word spoken in each moment. Friends from time to time have fallen into that same sleep, but the initial emphasis on the Spirit remains available, against the inevitable human tendency to replace God with familiar things--whether our own ancient baggage, or the idols of our contemporaries.

The powers rule us by two means: actual force--and bamboozlement. While some principalities do command terrible force, it is their power to fool us that most deprives us of dominion. They pose as harmless; they pose as docile. They pose as invincible, and perilous; they hide behind the skirts of their sister "Reason", who tells us they are non-existent. Like human con artists, they offer us unearned gains--and dishonest justifications for why we really deserve them. They appeal to our better nature, give us sweet dreams that we can relieve suffering without getting too close to it.

Friends, from the beginning, have shown remarkable ability to resist violence and intimidation. Facing deception, however, we find (as Woolman observed in his day) that "the fruits of the spirit which is of this world are brought forth by many who profess to be led by the Spirit of truth, and cloudiness is felt to be gathering over the visible Church."

We, who see that cloudiness all too clearly, often seek help in the glorious Quaker past. We invoke Early Friends against the Friends we know; we dig up sensible old practices--but The Angel of Quaker Tradition is not the ally we're seeking! A true rebirth will require a return to our true root--the direct experience of God.

How can we "do" that? Do we sit back in comfort, saying, "I never got the message so it must not have been important?" Afflict ourselves with anguish, wailing "Why have you forsaken us?" Seek some "middle" way? None of the above. I have no "practical" suggestions. What comes to me is that we must learn, and preach, the gospel.

What's that? Fox, mining the Bible [Romans1.16], said that the gospel was "the Power of God to Salvation." He says it "expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage." He demands that "now the Everlasting Gospel must be Preached again to all Nations, Kindreds, Tongues, and Peoples which dwell upon the Earth, that through that, Life and Immortality might come to Light in them." [George Fox, Some Principles of the Elect People of God Who in Scorn are called Quakers, London 1661, available online at]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Quaker Renewal VII: The Gospel, Whatever That Is

But what is this "gospel" to be learned and preached?

A "gospel" in Roman times was the proclamation that a new "Savior of Mankind" had just ascended the Imperial throne. For early Christians, then, it meant the analogous proclamation that Jesus was God's chosen ruler of the Earth--and thus it became a term for books about Jesus. But the name "Jesus" belonged to a multitude of First Century Jews, and has since been applied to a multitude of false images, each captive to one ideology or another.

The real Jesus is veiled, his life and nature subject to dispute. As far as I can tell, modern Friends think that sitting quietly for an hour each week shows us everything we need to know of the Christ spirit, who "enlightens everyone who comes into the world"--and hence the solution to the Jesus puzzle is not on the test.

True, we weren't given this problem to trip us up, or so we could earn a heavenly 'A' with 'the right answer.' If 'right answers' were the object, we would have had authoritative writings of Jesus to misunderstand. Nothing of the sort was left us, because the kind of answers we need require a passionate desire for understanding, plus reliance on God to bring us to it.

The gospels confront us with God's anointed king of Israel--rejected, despised and feared by all authorities, civil or religious--misunderstood and abandoned even by his own followers. This man is a long way from anything we can understand as "success." This, they say, is the man God raised from death, to sit at his right hand. This is the spirit who secretly rules the world, in the midst of all apparent darkness. But can we make anyone believe it; should we strain to believe it ourselves? So far as we don't know, we are just offering another notion.

To my mind, the "good news" is that the Spirit within us is the Creator of the world, a being of ultimate goodness and ultimate power.

But no particular proposition is "the power of God to salvation." God's actual power and will to save us, that itself is what delivers us from one trouble to the next. And how can we think to convey God's divine power?

We can tell people about it, in hopes they won't go on suffering from false fears and wasting their strength chasing false remedies.

A child at sea in a storm, not expecting rescue, can do many foolish things hoping to save himself. He might put up a sail, row in circles or random directions, try to anchor in bottomless ocean. He might even jump overboard and swim. But once he knows a rescuer is coming, he can cooperate: turn into the wind, stay in place as best he can, wait to be found. This is what makes true beliefs important. And that is the value of preaching, little as we love it. "How could [people] invoke one in whom they had no faith? And how could they have faith in one they had never heard of? And how hear without someone to spread the news?" [Romans 10.14]

Preaching, in our own power, won't do it. No-one's belief is under our control, not even our own. Convincing anyone to rely on God, that's a job for God's power itself. God is what we need to rely on, and God is, fortunately, all we can rely on.

We do need to learn how.

We were born into a faithless time, and so it isn't easy. But that is what the state of the world demands. We just might need to take it slowly, as God has taken so very long bringing us through our lives this far. Who could expect comfortable people or urgently concerned people to make great leaps of faith?

We can start by asking God for hints in small matters, expecting to be answered not by a Heavenly Voice but by whatever comes to us, whether in our own minds or in the outside world. Don't, if you can help it, despise these hints, or calculate their odds, or reduce them to "coincidence" in your mind. Trust in the one who teaches us. Many of us can say, from our own experience, that this works.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Open Letter to God

It’s not that you are altogether
guiltless, judged by our standards–
There are murdered corpses heaped
beyond the dreams of Presidents

and you made us capable of that;
this is nothing to the pyramid of bodies
left by disease, starvation, accident–
which you invented, and made us fear.

If we escape all that, we fall
gradually to slow, still-twitching rot
preserved in nursing homes, pickled
like the still-breathing accomplishments
of some superstitious funeral technology,

the brain and guts discarded
while what remains still moans, unheeded,
for death, or fear of death; this is justice
for wanting to live more than is good for us.

You have not, I fear, made us
as intelligent as I’d like,
though we are clever. I will give you
credit for the Father of the Neutron Bomb
and the mute, inglorious Edisons
of the punji stick; we all know
sufficient examples of human cleverness.

You have given us enough fear
to keep us turning in our beds;
this is a necessary part
of the mechanism that runs us
til it unwinds, or drives us
into the wall at the end of the freeway.

I am grateful–You know I am–
to have escaped so much, and of course
to have enjoyed so much being here.

I am grateful for religion, though I think
you ought to have made a disease
transmitted by self-righteous hatred–
I guess you did; we call it “patriotism”
or “politics”, sometimes “religion.”

We may die of that. Even I,
who know so many people to love,
have noticed a great many others;
I hear you need them to make a world
but I fail to see the necessity
when they drive by with radios pounding;

there are other things people do
that probably do not justify
my wishing they were dead, or living elsewhere
(We could improve this place immensely
with only a little mass-murder
though I’m not supposed to mention
things like that;

we know there are little things
I do that no-doubt annoy
some people into almost-murderous rage.)

I am glad to be here tonight,
awakened by chronic anxiety
to write this poem, and listen
to drunken voices yelling:
“Wake up! Wake up! Har har har!”

I believe you mean me well; I’ve been told
that, and I really do believe it.
If I were good, I could call you “Daddy”
and fear nothing, in this world or any.

If I could talk to you, and trust you
like a friend, undistracted
by your power to maim, torture, or worse
life would be so much easier.

Meanwhile, I think of chess pieces
put in their box, and I
wonder if I want what’s good for me
and of course
I thank you for this poem.

Forrest Curo (~1983)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Last P(acific) Yearly Meeting, what happened and what didn't happen and why it matters.

This is obviously not an official report. I wrote it up mainly for quaker-L, sent a copy to appropriate people & committees, and hope others will find it useful.
Although I've never been able to attend an FGC gathering, I think I use my yearly meeting as that kind of event. I find myself overwhelmed by the critical spiritual mass gathered together; I wax ecstatic, burble to myself and others, go about loving people whether harshly, admiringly, or simply with great affection. I come home, hoping to "keep" what I find there, but of course "it" is not that kind of "thing." "A city may be moved, but not a well." Still, the Spirit is here as well, and what I really need is openness to what it may look like here.

This year was special, in that Ministry and Oversight decided we should treat it as a "Jubilee" year, dedicated to stopping our heedless rush and continually examining: "Is [this] really necessary?"

Tony Prete, [from Philadelphia) gave an introductory talk, on the meanings of Sabbath and Jubilee. Which are akin. The Hebrew words were not based on the word for rest," but for "stop." Sabbath is, precisely, a day for discerning God's will from ours, valuable tradition from mere "habit." By implication, Sabbath was what a person under foreign masters would (by the normal ways of the ancient world) have been forbidden to do--stop the work required by his masters, in obedience to his own God and in limited, but firm, defiance of their gods and coercive power.

Business was not abandoned this year, but significantly curtailed in favor of worshipful "discernment." There was at first much grumbling and yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt, fear that we had all been led out to die in the desert. But the worship was deep and emotionally moving, so that by the end of the second day people were coming to agree that something similar in our monthly meetings could well prove worthwhile.

Toward the end of the third day, the worship had become so deep that one of us called for it to continue on into the period scheduled for worship-sharing. I was personally content with whatever we might do at that point, but another person vehemently disagreed, and so the Clerk suggested that those who wanted to continue might remain, while another member objected that this would occupy space needed by several
worship-sharing groups. I went to join and comfort the first speaker, to tell her that what actually happens does exceed whatever we first yearned for, but this was not what she'd wanted at all, at all. I was left alone with another concerned woman, not so charismatic but equally upset that we had unduly limited the Spirit. And then went on to worship sharing, where I remained utterly blown out, babbling poetically to what I hope was someone's benefit. (& was likewise touched by what the others had to say.)

Friday night someone was running a tv nearby, and instead of beating down their door, screaming, I stayed up awhile later, writing the following:

The gospel, we are told, is the saving power of God.

This is not to say that the saving power of God is dependent on our belief in some doctrine called "the gospel," rather that the gospel that must be announced is that God can and will save us. This gospel needs to be announced, not because God needs it to save us, but because we need to believe in God's power rather than in false remedies that can only worsen our condition.

Faith saves us because it enables us to act in accord with God's will.

So far as we lack faith, we know of no choice but to conform ourselves to the ways of the world, and hence to struggle futilely with false hopes and fears.

We can turn to faith, it appears, only when we recognize that our misplaced trust in the world and our false selves threatens not only our own lives but all we hold dear.

We who know somewhat of the state of the world recognize God at work when we see our fellow Quakers honestly facing it. And so we rejoice. But when we let the process stop there, it becomes a self-indulgent exercise in despair.

We have had several hints, this week, of what we need to do better.

We need to devote our time and effort first to the most important task--leaving the Spirit free to act among us. We say that our meetings for business are exercises in worship, but so far as we treat business as a matter of higher priority than worship for its own sake, we should expect to find our business badly ordered, fixated on minutiae and productive of strife.

This year we made a laudable effort to return to God's priorities. As a result, we have experienced many powerful meetings, but fell short, so far, of what we may have hoped for.

The man who introduced JYM this year spoke of a tradition of early Friends I hadn't understood, that they would meet until they felt the Spirit breaking forth among them, and not stop before that.

When we return to our home meetings, should we strive to set up occasional meetings scheduled on that principle? Shorter periods may be all God needs, but if they are all we are willing to devote to this, we may not be giving God sufficient attention for our own progress.

I wasn't able to do anything with that writing, the last day of the meeting. The business meeting was scheduled first, and as usual ran way overtime into the period allotted to worship. When I finally, gratefully was able to settle into worship, I could not object to--nor add to--the many messages of warm fuzzy solidarity in this brief remaining time.

But I will, of course, forward this post to Ministry for anything
worthwhile they might find in it.

Further musings. The trouble with "Quaker process" may well be what a young woman I'd asked told me: "We aren't doing it right; the kind of order we are following is not the right order." One difficulty may be that our clerks are inevitably selected from people drawn to the kind of Quaker business we normally do. They are trained to discern the spirit of what the whole group assembled is willing, at it's best, to agree on. And so we achieve a kind of least-common-denominator unity, and since we
are good people, and since we are all spirit-led despite ourselves, this is generally
a good decision that everyone can live with.

What bothers those of us anguishing at the margins is that the resulting decision is often not the best we could achieve, merely the best we can do without putting too much strain on our most faint-hearted members.

The "answer?" Worship, worship, and more worship. Worship. "With all our heart and all our mind and all our strength."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Exit Dancing
[I wrote this on New Year’s Eve, 1980-81. I was recently divorced, feverishly writing poems & falling in love, and I was celebrating in the Brooklyn apartment of my first poetess. She said we should spend the time doing what we most wanted to be doing the rest of the year, and I wanted to tell her about this guy.
Later that year she encouraged me to send the poem to the National Federation of State Poetry Societies contest where it won the $1000 first prize.]

Tillman was a kid of nineteen
who always amazed us.

We lived in a long carton of upstairs rooms
with a small kitchen
of two hotplates and some chairs.

Tillman was a kid
who was going back to school
because he’d found some teachers

and he loved it all. Tillman looked
like a dark young god of woods and streams
and lived by pothead time.

We all met in one of the rooms
and passed the joints around,
talking of giant cats who purred as they ate you
and the silk-robed monks in their mountain temple
blowing long golden trumpets we thought were foghorns.

Tillman tried all the drugs with glorious curiosity
and I worried sometimes
but figured he was too holy to be hurt.

We spoke with passion for the whole glorious world
we danced through
with our beautiful friends. Tillman loved the world

and we all inhaled his joy
with the clear holy weed we had for that time
which exists no more in this world for me.

When I’d forgotten what it was like to be down
we moved out to various places
and went through hard times.
He took me in when I needed shelter
and I felt safety
sleeping in the same house
with Tillman’s goodness.

He was still trying drugs
and I warned him to be careful
but the world was too good to hurt him.

He was sorry for me in my sad cowardice
but remained my friend
while he lived his joy with beautiful new people.

He hugged me sometimes
and I thought I was queer for him
but he wouldn’t believe it;
he loved me anyway as we sat apart
watching ghostly night trees from his window.

The last time I saw Tillman
in his new place, making plans
for a beach party he didn’t invite me to

I was hurt, and thinking I was safer this way–
but I put that thought aside.

When I heard about the accident
I didn’t worry;
he was in a coma but I didn’t worry
because the man was indestructible

and when they told me
the funeral was today

I went back to my room
feeling much nothing
about a man we needed
who wasn’t available anymore
to grow on into a beautiful adult.

I still didn’t believe it
when I got his girl’s letter
about Tillman high on life
checking out the turkey farm

where two wild birds hung
out over the gate
as warning to their brothers.

“Gobble gobble” said the turkey
as Tillman seized it saying “Gobble gobble” to the turkey
and grasping it by the neck as Tillman would.

Omens hung about Tillman
and some visiting girl
thicker than slogans on a fool’s bumper

but Tillman was impatient
so they left early by a different route.
Tillman was sitting cozy
between his girl’s legs
when the car when off the cliff
and they all flew out.

The other girl died then
but Tillman lived
in a coma with one hand
that clutched for something

until he died; the funeral
was beautiful and they all cried
when the rabbi spoke of him.

I went to see her at her parents’ house
and saw her drawings from her visit home
to Northwest Coast Indians.
Grandparents and totem animals
looked out of her dark eyes
as she let me meet her parents.

A year later someone told me
she’d died of an overdose–
artistic symmetry in losses beyond price–
casualties sooner-or-later
of stupid laws, indifferent lies,
the stunted fantasies
of the jailers and the scene-stealers
who left no roles big enough to hold them.

I treasured her letter
until it wore out in my pocket
and on a mountain cliff in Big Sur
I danced Tillman’s dance

while a beautiful hairy man
sat with his shy lady
playing their homemade drums
beneath the glorious yes sky

while I said “Tillman is here
beneath the glorious yes sky!”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Saturday, September 02, 2006

okay, another poem

I used to love the rain.

It goes back to my childhood;
my mother wouldn't let me out in it
at first, and then it was a treat
to feel it plopping on my waxy yellow raincoat
under the big bright hat like a fireman would wear
or a fisherman out at sea in a hurricane
drops falling splat splat in the puddles
water out of the sky, how amazing
and how grown up to be walking in it
all by myself.

I used to love the rain, even
when I came home from the storefront Methodist
church my parents thought would be good for me
full of Noah and the fire next time
daydreaming of water over the ditch
up the hill and into the driveway, water
over the curb, into the basement
water up the front stairs
and the door, flooding the whole world
to the windows; and we could all go around in boats.

I always loved the rain
in the Bible, falling
with loving impartiality
and the real rain would remind me of it
and make me smile; the air felt clean
as if it were already done washing

and on a rainy night you know
the psychic power lines are buzzing
and anything can happen, anything--
When you're a bewildered young failure at college
all dried up and inside-out with loneliness
you might venture out on a sleepless midnight
and meet a stranger at the doughnut shop
holy-eyed and ranting of past lives he'd seen you in
to invite you to a mansion in the Berkeley Hills
where a young woman fifty thousand years old
waits to initiate you into mysteries;

anything can happen on a rainy night
when you need it to happen, when the time is right;
you can move in to protect
a woman you're mistakenly in love with
and adore her from afar in her own living room,
you could steal her a Christmas tree
thirty years ago when I did it
(I don't suggest that anymore.)
The rain came down in drops crowded together
each drop like a fishbowl, the wind tearing at the world
while I sat cozy inside the window

and I always wanted it to rain; I wanted
to feel the angels washing me clean again
for another start, another adventure,
or maybe just the simple love of the rain.

There was a time, once
when a decent person might love the rain
and it wouldn't have to mean someone was shivering,
it wouldn't have to mean people sleeping in wet clothes
with no mommy to put them in a hot bath
so they wouldn't catch their deaths out in all that.

I have seen my country ruin itself
in a frenzy of wilful ignorance;
I have seen mercy despised, cruelty accepted--
men like ants prattling of freedom
to create wealth by picking everyone's pockets--
I have had to learn to live
by swallowing indignation

but beyond all that
they have stolen my rain
and that is not even mine
to forgive.

Forrest (late 80's, revised slightly)

Friday, September 01, 2006

pamphlet of a few years ago

[As I said when I first talked on this, "If this is a true message, you'll know it too." I was working at the edge of my understanding, being too harsh on a few people, couldn't reduce it to a neat and orderly piece. I did post it on a Yahoo site for a list on "Quaker Outreach", but I'm off the list and probably couldn't find it now. So here it is, for whatever useful half truth might be found in it.]

Being Valiant for the Truth--
The Need for More Conflict Among Friends

There are different meanings for the word "conflict," and our language does not distinguish easily between what is good, and what is bad, in what seems at first so very straightforward. As I've struggled with this pamphlet, I've been repeatedly confronted with destructive and futile examples of conflict, forced to question if I should go on arguing for something I'd been entirely sure was needed.

The need is urgent, and yet I couldn't move forward. Different potential calamities stand in line, for the honor of destroying us all, or at least making us altogether miserable. There is already appalling physical suffering over much of the world, and even in this nation of relative safety and abundance, poverty remains "the number one killer of children," while it blights the lives of far too many adults. Violence increases, between nations and individuals, while nice people keep on hoping that "legitimate" force can give them security.

There is widespread need for the spiritual truths behind the Quaker movement, but even Friends may be more deeply rooted in "the world" than in the Spirit they're called to serve. We can hardly make these truths known when we can't even agree on them ourselves. And we can hardly reach agreement without exposing our notions to conflict.

Most people think conflict is a bad thing, and most Quakers practically think it's a sin. We see disagreements upsetting people, arguments upsetting them further without clearing up anything at all.
Should there be conflict among Friends? Isn't conflict a bad thing? Aren't Friends a 'peace church'?
We should untangle such objections. The Society of Friends is a valuable tool for God's work in this world, but too many unresolved confusions have blunted our edge.

Dan Synder, a teacher at Pendle Hill, used what he called 'tension charts' to probe the relations between concepts. Here is an example:

................... peace
....................... ^
....................... |
....................... |
..............'violent | 'nonviolent
..............peace' | peace'
...................... |
violence <----------------------------> nonviolence
...................... |
.............'violent | 'nonviolent
........... conflict' | conflict'
...................... |
...................... |
...................... v
.................... conflict

'Violent peace,' in this illustration, might mean a situation of oppression and intimidation--where unacknowledged harm was being done to people, but the potential for conflict was dampened by lies, misconceptions, and threats. Notice that 'peace' and 'conflict' are opposites, according to this chart--and that seemed wrong to me.
Seeking a more satisfactory opposite, I observed: Things 'conflict' when they don't 'agree.' Is the opposite of 'conflict', then, 'agreement'? Well, no, because there's more to conflict than 'disagreement.' Conflict happens when people care about a disagreement:

.................. engagement
.............,............. ^
................ conflict: |
..............argument, |
.....discussion, other | unity
....efforts to resolve |
......................... . |
disagreement <-------------------------------> agreement
........................... |
........................... |
...............tolerance | uniformity
....................... .. . |
........................... v
....................... indifference

By this map, conflict is not necessarily bad. But uniformity has its place, unity is good when we can get it, and tolerance is better than many alternatives. Why should we want more conflict? Shouldn't any sensible person choose to avoid it?
Conflict makes us uneasy. But it can also be stimulating--exposing us to new ideas, forcing us to re-examine the ideas we started with, stirring up unsettling urges to "fight or run." To truly eliminate conflict is to court stagnation.
And so it has been with the Society of Friends. We have never succeeded in eliminating conflict; we have merely learned ways to argue silently--but our tacit discomfort with conflict tends to stifle our thinking, hamper communication among ourselves, and cripple our rare timid wish to share whatever our truth is with those poor souls outside our Society, whom too many Friends consider unable to appreciate what we can't teach them about silent worship.
Wanting to be good Quakers, we have striven to be Quakerly.
To be Quakerly is to manifest the fruits of the Spirit, which Paul lists as: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control." People want these fruits; they can recognize and appreciate them, more easily than they can understand what is meant by "the Spirit," and so the cultivation of virtues readily takes the place of seeking the Spirit. This is not hypocrisy, because the virtues are truly desired and practiced as well as people can manage--but none of these virtues can be truly practiced except by the aid of the Spirit.
Striving to be Quakerly is, of course, a radical departure from what Quakerism originally meant. But it's easily overlooked. The first draft of a recent Pendle Hill pamphlet referred to "the soothing silence of a Quaker meeting."
George Fox did not invite his hearers to meet in soothing silence, but in the felt presence of the living God. As most people don't experience this in church, Fox disrupted church services and tried to bring people out of them, into the stronger connection he knew was available. "The peace of all religions must be broken, before they come to the true religion from above, and the peace of all worships must be broken, before they come to the worship in spirit and truth the devil is out of; and the peace of all ways must be broken, the men and people are in, before they come into the way of Christ Jesus."
George Fox is not an authority for modern Friends (nor should he be) as to whether our ways and beliefs are properly Quaker. To many of us, his Biblical and sometimes combative language inspires more embarrassment than understanding. And he was certainly not opposing silent worship. He opposed ceremonial practices that people did instead of worship. It may never have occurred to him that sitting in silence could become a ceremonial substitute for worship.
What is worship? My Faith and Practice defines it, unintentionally, with one of the queries on 'Simplicity'-- "Do I center my life in an awareness of God's presence, so that all things take their rightful place?"
Sitting in silence can help us do that. It may also be soothing and beneficial to atheists. And there's no reason an atheist can't 'center down.' But an atheist, so far as we humans can be consistent beings, cannot worship.
I was once an atheist, back when my best friend first invited me to his Quaker meeting. It would be ridiculous, and unQuakerly, to exclude atheists from meeting. And it would violate an historic testimony, if we required prospective members to say: "I believe in ___." But one sweet old atheist, a long-time member of my meeting, got herself nominated to Ministry and Oversight--because she'd been around forever, because there was no one else, because everybody liked her, and she felt entitled to the position out of a kind of seniority. One member balked, but I urged her to stand aside, rather than hurt the old lady's feelings. Eventually she was approved. No lightning struck; the meeting did not slide into a crack in the earth, but we made a very grave mistake, though the only visible harm was our remaining unchanged.
Can Quaker Process lead to an error? I don't see why not. A highly spiritual acquaintance once advised me to "make mistakes and learn from them." Out of a few common books on Quaker history, I've found more than one occasion when authorized Quaker bodies, doing the best procedure they knew, made mistakes we could learn from.
In the case of the atheist minister, the underlying mistake was the dominant ethos in our meeting. We were good, loveable liberal people, coming together every week for Meeting and occasionally for Potluck, like a small, silent Unitarian church. It was difficult to know what anyone else in the group believed, because they didn't talk much religion outside of meeting, and seldom alluded to God with any confidence. In more than 10 years, I heard someone pray exactly once--after several members had spoken, able to express only their lack of faith and their despair over the state of the World.
I used to read about early Friends, with their fearless, contentious certainty of the power and availability of God, and wonder when and how we lost it. Oh, some of us had a strong, blissful consciousness of God at work in our lives, but the group as a whole didn't seem to. And we weren't an atypical group. At quarterly and yearly meetings, I'd hear of people who had told others in their meetings about mystical experiences--only to meet more fear than encouragement.
If we had anything the non-Quaker world needed--and I felt we did--we seemed singularly reticent about sharing it. Why, I wondered, were we so few, so uniformly light-skinned and middle-class? I brought the matter up in business meeting, and a series of 'talking meetings' on outreach resulted. Some of us were entirely against the idea of seeking more members; it would seem condescending to poor and black people, insulting to the churches they already had. It would make us too much like Jehovah's Witnesses. We didn't have black people, one woman explained, because they didn't enjoy sitting still in worship the way we did. Eventually we agreed to put out some invitational literature at a nearby suburban college campus.
About this time, walking home one night from a coffee house three blocks away, my wife Anne was attacked by a pair of young black men. They didn't say a word, just grabbed her blouse and pulled. When Anne screamed, a pizza delivery woman stopped her truck and dashed to the rescue. Aside from a ripped blouse, Anne was unharmed, but for a while she felt nervous around strange black men. We both wanted to mend relations, so far as we personally could, between black and white people--and so Anne suggested going to the black Apostolic church down the block.
They were extremely welcoming, all of us being agreed that black and white people should worship more together. I liked the strong, matter-of-fact faith of the preacher; Anne liked the spontaneous quality of the congregational music. Anne readily translated across the theological divide, but it bothered me. The church people generally used "Jesus" as a name for God, which was too far from how I understand things. We eventually stopped going. They had the faith and fervor my own meeting lacked, but they were so strongly pushing their church's interpretation of Scripture that (I felt) God himself couldn't get a word in.
Meanwhile we also went out and sought interesting--and friendly--conversations with black strangers in neighborhood parks, none of whom came to our meeting. The day that a black woman actually attended, we'd had nothing to do with it. She hadn't known anything about Friends, she said, but in a dream she'd been told: "Find the Quakers." She died not long ago, after becoming a valued and beloved member of another meeting.
It is good to trust in God, but new members should not have to be sent to us!
Among the reasons we don't make converts like early Friends: people expect to be told what a church 'believes,' and modern Friends don't work that way. The most widespread consensus among us is probably that we shouldn't work that way. But between us and that Apostolic church, both groups are missing something. Perhaps another chart (or two) will help me understand this better.

.................. faith & connection to God
............................ ^
............................ |
........Apostolic-style | Friends (& others)
............churches.... | at their best
........................... |
........................... |
doctrinal rigidity<------------------------------> openness
............................ |
............................ |
........'normal people' | most modern Friends
............................ | and meetings
............................ v
.................. . materialistic world-view

This is good, as far as it goes, but it leaves out some other relevant dimensions.

..................... coherent message and orientation in world
............................... ^
............................... |
..................... 'beliefs' | process of
............................... | learning
............................... |
............................... |
fixed doctrine <------------------------------> openness
.............................. |
.............................. |
................. 'opinions' | confusion
.............................. |
.............................. v
..................... being adrift, with no unifying context

On this chart, I would put much of the Society of Friends down in the lower right. That represents a more desirable condition than the lower left, but is not at all where I'd like us--way up along that central axis, living in the tension between 'doctrine' and 'openness,' but with a coherent message for the world and each other.
There must be something we know, can share, and can insist on, without shutting our ears to what else God might have to say. This 'something' would not be a creed or a testimony--for a committee to entomb in a suitable minute--but an underlying, mutually-known sense of God's intentions and our place in them.
Early Friends had this, and we do not. We've been too reluctant to make an issue of basic disagreements among us. The last time we did, in the great American Quaker schism of the 1820s, someone suffered a broken arm in a struggle over the yearly meeting Clerk's desk. While this is light casualties for a religious war, it's a good example of why respectable families don't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. People can get upset and misbehave.
If Quakers were to talk more openly about our disagreements, would that sort of thing occur more often? Given our general aversion to violence, I doubt it. What would happen is that some of us would be uncomfortable. Some of us would even become angry. We don't want to be uncomfortable; we don't (most of the time) want to become angry.

Some Thoughts About Anger
As with sex, we have strong feelings about anger, without understanding it particularly well. Puzzled myself, I read a book by Carol Tavris entitled Anger, which provided considerable intelligence, humor, and common sense, plus wonderful examples of how anger operates in various cultures and situations.
Tavris quickly demolished the notion that anger is a simple emotional reflex, akin to animal rage. It seems, rather, to be a combination of physiological arousal with a judgement. Finding ourselves inconvenienced, we would far rather believe that someone (or some thing) is at fault than to be helpless in a world that makes no sense. We would rather even be angry at ourselves than to realize that our fate is not, in principle, controllable by anything we choose to do or not to do.
I experienced this myself, when for the second time in a row I found myself trapped on the bridge from Philadelphia to New Jersey. It was not just that I felt stupid--and I hate feeling stupid--or that Philadelphia's system of signs and approaches to those bridges constitute a diabolical fools'-trap. I was terrified to think that I was powerless to control my habit of driving accidentally to New Jersey. The first time, I'd gotten there by ignoring directions, and the second time, by listening when I knew better. And so I raged, and tried to figure out what had gone wrong, and what could I do to make this absolutely never, never ever happen to me again--while everyone else in the car just figured I'd gone bonkers and was picking on them--which of course made us all wretched. But as I came to thoroughly recognize my incompetence, it ceased to bother me. God could send me to New Jersey at any time; I couldn't even count on reacting well when it happened. All right, it was about time I stopped putting my faith in myself.
Anger gets a bad press in the Bible. God gets away with it but we don't. Paul writes to the Ephesians: "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." Many psychologists, on the contrary, consider anger, like sex, as a natural condition, not necessarily malicious, that does have appropriate means and occasions for expression.
Tavris has a merry time with the notion that anger must be expressed, lest it make us mentally or physically sick. She convinces me that it is, in fact, just a notion. But there are so many examples of cold-blooded, unadmitted malice in the world, that I also suspect that anger can turn to something worse, unless we acknowledge it. To "acknowledge" is not to indulge, not to condemn, but merely to admit, recognize, examine.
If anger has any purpose, which it must, it serves a ‘policing' function in human societies. By and large, people learn to avoid doing things they know will expose them to dangerous anger.
For people who lack the formal power to control their social environment, anger may serve as an informal substitute. But there is always an implicit danger in having a "police" force, whether it's an external organization or a personal use of anger. Police forces are prone to prejudice, intimidation, violent over-reaction, and a bad habit of beating confessions out of people. A poorly controlled temper, like a badly administered police force, will not only commit crime, but will provoke crime where it needn't exist. It will maintain enough crime to keep itself in business, while brutalizing petty criminals and convenient bystanders, all the while keeping us confused--frightened of what doesn't threaten us, oblivious of true dangers.
The function of an honest police force is to investigate crimes, bring perpetrators to trial, exonerate the innocent. A good modern police force will also analyze common settings and triggering conditions for crime, seeking ways to prevent future occurrences--but even the best force is likely to miss the crimes of influential citizens, unlikely to be openly critical of bad public policies. Our personal use of anger is very much like this.
The trouble with anger, like other attempts to control our world, comes from two basic sources. First, a high level of emotional arousal does not improve our thinking; even the notion that this or any other self-protective procedure can actually make us safe is probably a delusion. Second, there is an element of judgement implied by anger. And Jesus tells us to beware of passing judgement.
That element of judgement can create havoc even in the absence of overt emotion--perhaps being most dangerous where its emotional wellspring is hidden, as in our systems of punitive justice and our punitive system of welfare. It can be turned against anger itself, as frequently happens among Friends.
We need to make evaluations, if we are to make any decisions whatsoever. Sometimes we even have to evaluate human beings, using their past performance as a guide to what we can all too likely expect. But to judge a person implies evaluation plus condemnation. And condemnation is the work of the Devil, whom Jesus said "was always a liar." Our judgement lies when it tells us that people we call evil are totally unlike us; it is equally a liar when it leads us to condemn ourselves. But it is most dangerous when our fear of self-condemnation lures us into denial.
This is what I believe has happened among modern Friends.

How Clinging to a False Peace Closes Our Ears to the Poor
A couple of years ago I arranged for a social worker to speak at a large, active California Friends meeting. His agency was working desperately to save poor families from the combination of punitive welfare policies and government-subsidized gentrification that was making more and more of them homeless. His efforts were not working; every day he was losing families altogether, or finding them doubled and tripled up in extremely overcrowded apartments, or seeing mothers and their children torn apart by the very agencies that were supposed to protect them. I felt that Friends badly needed to hear what he was experiencing, along with his anguished concern for the people he served.
It was not easy to find a day when he could come, and it was almost as hard to find a time when the Peace and Social Order Committee could schedule him. After some delay, we found a time--but this turned out to coincide with a meeting of the Education Committee and some kind of family crafts activity. Instead of the large group I'd hoped would hear him, he had half a dozen people--but he did an excellent job of telling them what was happening to his clients, a horrifying truth to anyone who could imagine the reality! And then one member asked him, wouldn't he be "more effective" if he weren't so angry.
The assumption at work here is that the institutions of the world can be incrementally perfected by a proper application of middle-class good will and know-how. It's not a Christian notion, and it misapplies the idea of ‘that of God' in other people. For Fox, "that of God" in a person was to witness against their errors, and to lead them to better ways. It never implied a blanket denial that human beings could be criminally inhuman--or that the systems we live under can be evil, not just because nice people have failed to apply good problem-solving techniques, but because nice people can be corrupted to turn a blind eye to any customary evil.
Arnold Mindell, in Sitting in the Fire, describes his work as a mediator--where he noticed a thick cultural barrier between middle-class people and lower-class groups. The comfortable felt that they were being ‘peaceful', just insisting on proper manners, in trying to suppress the strong emotions natural to people who had to live amidst urgent suffering.
Historically, many Friends "did well by doing good", and then suffered the distorted vision that comes from class privilege. We are now overwhelmingly a middle class denomination, and the blinders of the academic middle class are epidemic among us. It is not that we are not liberal and well-intentioned, even relatively enlightened--or that there are no positive values in middle class and academic ways. But they are partial values, and they are values that tend to disguise and justify privilege.
One interpretation of the story of Jesus and the rich man, convincingly argued by William Herzog, says that Jesus sees the root of the man's wealth in heartless and unjust expropriations from his poorer neighbors. Great wealth, in an ancient society with no effective means of increasing production, was necessarily gained at other people's expense. The point of asking the man to "give all that you have to the poor" was that he had committed unacknowledged, ‘legal' crimes against them, and needed to make restitution.
In modern times, personal wealth can come from increasing the public wealth. There is room for considerable disagreement on how much of the personal wealth in our society actually is this kind of wealth, and how much comes from manipulating the ‘real economy' in unproductive (or even counterproductive) ways. It seems worthwhile to examine that question, certainly in considering whether interest from endowments and investments is the appropriate way to maintain either ourselves or our religious organizations.
But what really makes us crazy is not: "Does Bill Gates deserve, or need, or give the world any commensurate benefit for the wealth he reserves for his use and personal empowerment?" The true mickey in the drink is this other question: "Do we deserve, need, or adequately compensate the world for the little we own and use?"
I am not saying it's a good question; I'm saying it's the question that makes us crazy. And you don't go crazy from the things that make you suffer, but from the things you won't look at.
We can't answer the question for fear of condemnation. We know we are not bad people; we are good people. Most of us give some of our money to good causes. We "really" don't have enough to give more. Well, really we could give a little more–but then, where would it stop? As J.D Crossan said: "In a context of systemic injustice, only the destitute are innocent."
We are not innocent. We cannot possibly be innocent. We can recognize this, and go free, or we can deny it. But we can only deny it by keeping our minds in a box. We can only do it by making certain facts, and certain people, socially invisible. Some of these people are far away, in the Third World. Some are on our very doorstep--unless policemen, armed with deadly weapons, come and politely tell them to go away, so as not to intrude on our comfortable lives.

The Tyranny of Contentment
Comfort is more than the petty issue it seems. Comfort, on some level, represents an optimal level of well-being, what we feel we need to maintain our health and keep functioning. We can endure discomfort, but at some point it becomes a distraction, an obstacle, an actual source of accidents and illness. It can't be wrong to want comfort.
And that includes emotional comfort. It is right and proper for us to want that. We were not created for torment, but for happiness. The trouble is, our efforts to maintain comfort are short-sighted.
We could not preserve comfort by living in our easy chairs. Our muscles would atrophy; we would develop strange aches and degenerative diseases, finding ourselves at last in worse pain than we'd ever hoped to avoid.
Similarly, we cannot preserve our comfort by keeping the world's pain at a distance. We want to; to a certain extent it's even necessary. But we need to know what it is we are escaping. If we ban all conflict, if we keep saying "‘Peace, peace,' where there is no peace," how can we ever know?

Are We Learning Yet?
I don't want to return to the 1800's, to the schisms and disownments and the stifling efforts to eliminate ‘incorrect' doctrine from our ministry--but I am disturbed by our disinterest in doctrine, our reluctance to bring it up, our despair of resolving our differences.
I believe, with William Penn, that we "are everywhere of the same religion," so far as there is any true religion in us at all. That "true religion" is not a doctrine, nor a practice, but our felt connection to the spiritual foundation of all we see and all we are. I recognize it among Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Moslems--even among Christians, some of them doctrinally fundamentalist. And the essence I see in Quakerism, the tradition I was grateful and humbled to join, is a radical emphasis on that connection to the spirit.
God, as Fox many times said, can be our teacher. Why, then, should we study the Christian scriptures, or any scriptures at all? My meeting doesn't, so far. A couple years ago, our Education Committee was abandoned for lack of interest--until I insisted on reviving it.
Our Faith and Practice tells us to come to meeting "with hearts and minds prepared for worship." But if we aren't even expecting to be taught, we can hardly come prepared to learn. In my own meeting, there are many enrolled members who don't evidently see much point in attending. And for too many active members, I fear, the words of Anne Wilson, speaking to Samuel Bownas in the 18th Century, apply. "A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?"
What do we need to learn? Will the Christian Bible be on The Exam? Certainly not for Buddhists, Jews, or people of all those other religions. Can't Friends, then, find what we need in other traditions?--or simply in the silence of our own meetings?
I have needed, for honesty's sake, to retract some of my original uncritical belief in the efficacy of silent worship. God may be our teacher, but even the best teacher will not make rapid progress with an uninterested student. And so we do not see the fire of the 16th Century founders of the Society among us; we see instead the banked coals of comfortable Americans of the low-flying academic and social service castes. Because you can't effectively discuss in class what you haven't been studying at home.

The point of having a tradition, the point of having a remembered past, is not to be under the weight of past errors, but to anchor the present, and the future, in the larger story we inhabit together, to orient us within what's really going on. Without a critical awareness of our history, we are reduced to living in the news. Not only will this subject us to the same errors our ancestors have already made for us, but we will have deprived ourselves of a magnificent view, the time dimension of God's creation.
Wherever I dip into religious history, I find great prophetic consciousness and courage--and always I see occasions when we humans fell short, when we clung too tightly to our cultural environment and our fears. The Inward Guide has led us, certainly, in all times, but only to the next stop in a long journey. When we ignore the Bible, we abandon the vision behind that journey, and lose ourselves in the wilderness, with no Egypt behind us and no Promised Land to give us hope.
To swallow a Bible uncritically, however, is to use it as a fig leaf over the unrecognized worship of our own culture and fears. What else can we do? Examine it openly, prepared like the Jews to argue freely among ourselves and to wrestle even with God.
Unprogrammed Friends seem more uneasy about the Bible than the Devil himself. (The Devil himself must feel comfortable with the Bible; he's used it so well!) Most people are nervous about the Bible, expecting that anyone who brings it up intends to beat them with it. Even Jesus can be a stick to beat us with. When I asked, on the major Quaker email list, what people thought about Jesus, and "what he was really up to," I got exactly one reply. Most of us were too wary.

Useless Conflict vs Truth-seeking vs Issue Avoidance
We have seen pointless conflicts in which people threw words at one another, failing to recognize the common ground under their words--and we are right to duck such conflicts. What we seem unable to imagine is the possibility of a loving conflict, anchored in a common commitment to following truth wherever it leads. That would require faith, in ourselves, in each other, in the ultimately benign nature of the truth we inhabit.
In a chess game, two people join in a vicious struggle. And though we strive to win, that is not enough to sustain our interest long. We play to give each other the struggle--and to increase our understanding of the game. We can do this on a chessboard, where the outcome doesn't matter all that much, but we can't do it so readily with the ideas we live by--where we are afraid to risk losing our habitual notions--and where we might benefit enormously from testing them against each other.
What I often hear instead among Quakers is a sort of ultimate mental bonelessness. One woman, speaking during the recent Iraq war, expressed uneasiness about antiwar people who "think they know they're right." She said there is "a human tendency to make things ‘yes,' or ‘no'," and "a Quaker third way," which I can only imagine to mean a total refusal to engage with any idea whatsoever.
I was angry, fearful of what came out sounding like a disguised form of blathering nihilism. I know we aren't always precise when we struggle to say what we really mean--and that precision isn't necessarily the best route to communication; but as a writer I hear what the words are saying, long before I feel what the speaker means. And so I am appalled to hear a Quaker deny that we know any war to be wrong.

Not Peace, But a Sword
There are several reasons to keep the Christian Bible--and one of the strongest reasons is, it acts to stop us evading what makes us most uncomfortable. It keeps us honest. There is a wealth of true spiritual sustenance in other religions, but we need the Jewish tradition that Jesus drew upon, and we need to "eat his flesh, and drink his blood"--not to imagine Jesus in a magical breadcrumb, but to take in his mind and heart, much as a successful Zen student is said to have "the flesh and bones" of his teacher.
First Century Judaism was a religion under tension, and Jesus was a man who argued fiercely within it. He saw directly; he said what he saw; and his vision frightened people. The authorities did not crucify him over some misunderstanding, but over things they understood all too well, and were afraid of understanding better. JD Crossan calls him "100% religious, and 100% political," and this is the combination that makes people worth crucifying. Jesus did not, for example, say merely "blessed are the respectable poor," but rather "blessed are the destitute." The gospels show him as continually engaged in controversy, taking the side of the poor, wretched and outcaste against the political and religious authorities. Whatever actually happened in his ‘cleansing' of the Temple, Jesus was clearly echoing Jeremiah, who had in his own time prophesied its destruction--for its misuse to sanctify oppression and exploitation of the poor.
When we read the pamphlets of early Friends, we find them continually engaged in vehement, often abusive, argument, first with the larger society around them, but also among themselves. Having found a Light that they know is in all people, they seem unable to conceive that anyone could honestly see things differently–but habitually call their opponents "liars" and worse.
George Fox took a similar tone: "Therefore, be bold and valiant for the Truth. Triumph over all the deceivers and trample upon their deceits." He combined this with the advice to be "tender to one another in all convenient outward things." But he also adds, on another occasion, that "something will oppose [truth], or else what need the word, valiant, be spoken?"
In my home meeting, I would sometimes feel called to give disturbing messages. They disturbed me, and I hoped they would disturb other Friends. I always knew I had succeeded, in that measure, because someone would very soon rise with a message of reassurance and comfort. The meeting, having stirred uneasily in its sleep, would return once again to sweet contentment. What I could not do was convey my sense that we were called to a deeper involvement--not just joining in some political action, but coming to know people who suffered under poverty, bringing them into our worship, making their pain our own. I could not convey my sense that our very religion needed to be reexamined.
At a Pendle Hill meeting, a man spoke about a first class airline ticket he'd received for giving up his seat on a crowded flight. Using the ticket on the next flight, he'd noticed how pampered the first class passengers were--and compared it to the discomfort and neglect suffered by other passengers. He felt that first class was for people who wanted to be privileged above others, people who didn't have a clue about the lives of those beneath them in the class system. "I don't want to travel first class!" he concluded.
After meeting, a woman vehemently denounced what she called "class warfare" in his message. She pointed out that some rich people donate to Pendle Hill. Given that there were good rich people, she clearly considered it wrong to criticize the existence of individual wealth amid the world's poverty.
If it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through a needle's eye, it can be equally hard for a middle-class Society of Friends to see where the Light is blocked. And when I said this, reassurance was, as usual, quick to arrive.
Aren't I inconsistent? First I complain that we don't argue enough; then I complain that we're too quick to argue in defense of our complacency.
The trouble with defensive arguers is their lack of a program beyond the status quo and their place in it. Comfort restored, their interest in any subject dissipates. To these people, of course, we gadflies are equally predictable--"our Friends in the hair shirts," as a good Friend put it--and the fact that we evidently ‘have an agenda' is suspect.
"Everything is perfect, but some things could use a little improvement." It is right to love the world, as God's ongoing work of art. This is the setting where God's intentions for us are being worked, even in the worst poverty and the most violent conflicts. But war and deprivation are not what we want for ourselves; to be content with a system that breeds them is not to "love our neighbor as ourselves."
The misery of the world, and the danger of human extinction, are if anything greater than ever. It is absurd to expect to plan ‘normal' lives for ourselves, as if we could live them out untouched by such a crisis. Even the most oblivious prisoner of tv must glimpse this from time to time in the ‘entertainment' he is given--and instantly, automatically, snap his mind shut against it.
Peace and social justice are "fruits of the Spirit," not a substitute for it. But the drive for social justice is an essential consequence of an active spiritual life--going back to early Friends, to the life of Jesus, to the best Jewish traditions before him. If the Society of Friends can dismiss this as ‘just another concern,' to be vicariously enjoyed through the labors of a few odd individuals, we need to reexamine our ways. And this will inevitably bring us to conflict, inside and out, against that which "will oppose."

Unity in Struggle.
It is natural for leaders of religious organizations to stress unity of mind among the members. Fox does, and Paul does. Trying to force unity, however, is likely to exacerbate internal conflicts, by making differences the occasion for revolts, purges, and schisms.
A demand for unity implies a way to decide: What should we think about crucial issues? And which issues are crucial?
Arguing is the way most people do it. It can even be a religious tradition. In the Torah, there is a law that says "A disobedient son shall be stoned?" "Ah," wondered the Rabbis, "What sort of person is this ‘disobedient son'?" After much debate, they concluded that the son deserving such a punishment had never existed and could not possibly exist. Why, then, had they been given that law? "So we could enjoy this argument."
Minutes on ‘gay marriage' served much the same function in many of our meetings--and led to some useful rethinking of our attitudes toward homosexuality. But for more complex issues, affecting everyone's vocational and financial lives, such test-case motions are harder to find, easier to dismiss without considering the deeper issues involved.
One way to raise such issues is to introduce proposals for new testimonies. Friends who feel the Society should have greater sensitivity on environmental issues, for example, have proposed a Testimony on Unity with Nature. Then, since many Friends proved unconcerned with these issues, the proponents suggest calling "threshing meetings" about the matter.
An online manual of Faith and Practice defines a "threshing meeting" as one "at which a variety of different, and sometimes controversial, opinions can be openly, and sometimes forcefully, expressed, often in order to defuse a situation before a later meeting for worship for business. Originally the term was used to describe large and noisy meetings for convincement of ‘the world's people' in order to thresh them away from the world."
Another site gives slightly more detail. "Friends should not avoid issues which may be difficult or controversial. It is better for the Meeting to allow full opportunity for differences to be aired and faced. In dealing with such issues, or those of a complex nature entailing information with which some Friends may be unfamiliar, it is often helpful to hold one or more preliminary ‘threshing meetings' in which no decision is made, but through which the chaff can be separated from the grain of truth. Such meetings can clear the way for later action on the issue. Full notice of a threshing session should be given and special efforts made to see that Friends of all shades of opinion can and will be present. To the extent that Friends of a given view are absent, the usefulness of such a meeting will be impaired. If factual material needs to be presented, persons knowledgeable in the area should be asked to present such material and be available to answer questions.
"The Clerk or moderator of a threshing session should make it clear at the start that the Meeting not only expects, but welcomes expressions of the widest differences. Friends are urged not to hold back whatever troubles them about the issues at hand. Hesitancy to share a strong conviction because it may offend someone, reflects a lack of trust. The Clerk's job, then, is to draw out the reticent, limit the time taken by too-ready talkers, and see that all have an opportunity to speak. It is useful to ask someone to take notes of the meeting for later reference. At times the threshing meeting may forward a recommendation to the Meeting for Business.
I. Speak from personal experience.
II. Do not reply to or rebut others.
III. All ideas and thoughts on an issue are welcome for consideration.
IV. Everyone should have a chance to speak.
V. Friends have a responsibility to YM to make dissenting views known during a threshing session.
VI. Passion is permitted!
VII. Unity does not have to be achieved during a threshing session.
VIII. Threshing meeting outcomes are reported back to Business Meeting."

I tend to be uncomfortable with demands like "Do not reply to or rebut others." To me, an idea is an idea is an idea, and plausible bad ideas deserve to be examined for flaws, and the fact that (other!) people feel attacked when their notions are ripped to shreds seems not so important.
It would be nice if I could be comfortable having my own notions ripped to shreds. (Of course, if my ideas were that fragile I should have ripped them up myself long before!) It would be easier if there were room to re-rebut each other, until we arrived (I hope) at some common understanding.
There are good reasons to avoid directly criticizing each other's opinions. One is that people get attached to their opinions over the years, and don't like having them put down. People need to know when their pet opinions are soiling carpets and biting people, but breaking the news to them gently can make it easier. Also, shy people need experience in speaking their thoughts safely, before they can enjoy a good bare-knuckle discussion. And many people's thoughts are far more coherent and cogent than their verbal output.
But rather than entirely forbidding criticism, I suggest only banning it temporarily, for the initial steps in a longer process.
Worship-sharing in small groups has a way of establishing love between participants. If such groups meet together over a long time, learning to value each other despite differences, and sometimes because of differences, we can hope to reveal unrecognized disagreements, discern which conflicts are less substantive than they first appear, and work to resolve anything that truly blocks us from following what light we have been given.
I'd like to see this done for its own sake, not just to produce testimonies and other statements. The value of a testimony is not in the statement itself, but in the process of reaching it and the understanding it calls forth in its authors and subsequent readers. When, for example, a meeting can't condemn an air strike because a long-term member feels that the leaders who ordered it "might know something we don't," the peace testimony is wounded. It would be wrong and useless to make prospective members agree to our testimonies as if they constituted a sort of ‘Quaker creed'; but we might all benefit from a joint examination of what we each believe and why.
After several years of attending a small monthly meeting, I went to a quarterly meeting where some of the members were assigned to the same worship-sharing group. I was amazed at how much I learned about them, and how much I hadn't known.
Silence can not only be a barrier to conflict, but a barrier to any mental interaction whatsoever. It can also be a valuable religious practice, which I intend to continue.
But my experience of being taught by God has come through many sources, including books, people, and the very environment around me. It's all God (There's nothing else available to make up this setting in which we live.)
God manifests in periods of quiet motionlessness, and in the midst of hectic movement or seemingly trivial entertainment. Our capacity for noticing is generally better in the quiet moments; we feel God more easily when we are at peace. But God is also at work in the discords and even when we ourselves are utterly losing it.
Since I first started writing on this subject, I've become painfully aware of my own tendency to duck arguments. And I've seen other people avoid conflict by being argumentative, by stating their beliefs so vehemently as to discourage any reasonable opponent. From what I've seen of conflict in other groups, I can't say that Friends do it any worse, We may well handle it better.
We need to explore new methods, and to make more and better use of the methods we have. Rather than struggling for the best wording of a statement ‘we can all agree on'--without engaging our basic disagreements--we should temporarily renounce our attachment to ‘practical results,' and strive first for a deeper unity.
I'd like us to give ‘worship sharing' the same emphasis we give to silent meeting, more importance than we give to ‘business.' We should schedule some form of worship-sharing often, and actively seek participants from the non-Quaker world.
Samuel Bownas, a Quaker preacher of the century after Fox, was puzzled by a new deadness he felt in some meetings, that hampered his preaching. "I found it very hard work in many places, and in some meetings was quite shut up, but where the people who did not profess with us came in plentifully it was not so, there being an open door." He approached another Friend, and asked "what he thought might be the reason, why it seemed more dead amongst Friends in this nation now, than in some other places. He gave this as a reason, that ‘the professors of truth in that nation were very strict and exact in some things, and placed much in outward appearance, but too much neglected the reformation and change of the mind, and having the inside thoroughly cleansed from pride and iniquity, for thou knowest,' said he, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was always hurtful to the life of religion in all shapes.'"
Our ‘leaven of the Pharisees'--our clinging to the appearance of peace--has never entirely overwhelmed ‘the life of religion' among us. I do think it has impeded the ‘reformation and change of the mind' among Friends, and helped build a barrier of pride between Friends and outsiders. Those of us yearning wistfully for a renewal of the Society, a new manifestation of God's power among us, must realize that this implies an open door to ‘those who do not profess with us,' and more conflict, not less.
Our doors have always been open. But strangers won't enter those doors without a reason they can recognize. We can offer a particular way of showing worship, but that isn't enough. The source of our practices is the belief that God is accessible, that truth is available to all, that we can be valiant for the Truth without losing our mutual love.