O Death

One misconception I occasionally run into is that as a hospice nurse, I must welcome death, embrace it, almost have a morbid fascination with it. 

Well, I certainly think about death. I thought about death before I went into nursing, and I think about it even more now. Death is the backdrop of all our lives, and I am constantly aware of it. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of life between two eternities of darkness.”† Common sense does, indeed. 

The people who think I must have a morbid fascination with death are often puzzled upon discovery that I am also an EMT. Saving lives and midwifing the ends of them seem incompatible. 

Yet I tend to death and to the dying because of how much I love life. I'm an EMT because I want to save lives, and I am delighted when that can happen. Nothing cancels the joy of a life restored. Life is a vessel holding the sacred and should itself be held close for as long as we can faithfully hold it.

At some point, though, it stops making sense. It stops being an act of faithfulness to hold on to our lives. In case anyone missed the bulletin: we all die. Yes, all. Any restoration is temporary. 

I, like most people, am afraid of my death. I am afraid but I acknowledge that my fear makes no sense. Fear of death is like fear of breathing. If, in an effort to cope with such a fear, I turn my back on death (or breathing), I can't really live. 

So, confronted with the abyss, tempted to stand continually with my back towards it, I must turn, then, and live. 

When I turn, living, and look into the abyss, my reaction is to bless it the only way I know how. Clinging to life can’t overcome death — but love can. 

When people with very severe illnesses sit down with their loved ones and discuss “goals of care,” one of the goals is almost always to have as much full time together as possible. If, in my work, I can help people attain that goal and bear out the fullness of their love “even unto the edge of doom,”‡ I have helped to bless death. I am, then, blessed in return. My own fear of death boils down to a fear of no longer being loved. When, over and over, I see love resurrect in the face of death* — I can finally begin to let go of fear.

Nevertheless, “please spare me over for another year!”

†from Nabokov's Speak, Memory; ‡from Shakespeare's sonnet 116; *image of love as a resurrection from Kate Braestrup's Here If You Need Me.) Oh, and “Turn, then, and live!” is from multiple places in the Bible.


No Easy Textbook

A really remarkable pile of OTHER
difficult textbooks I should be reading.
Oh dear.

I'm studying for my Family Nurse Practitioner boards, as well as for my EMT-Intermediate, so I guess I’ve got textbooks on the brain.

Turns out, I had some very long talks with the titular atheist of my first post. It took some time, but at last we reached a mutually satisfactory understanding (he wanted to understand, I wanted to be understood).

His last question was more or less this:

“Why the Bible? You’ve just explained how difficult, frustrating, and full of contradictions the Bible is, yet you want to learn from it and receive spiritual insight from it. If I want to learn something, I don’t read obscure academic papers. I pick an easy textbook.”

I didn’t think long before I gave my answer, so it was only after speaking that I realized how true it was. There is no easy textbook.

 If the goal of a spiritual life is “the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight,” (Wikipedia on mysticism—not bad) then even a cursory survey of world-wide spiritual experience tells me the following: First, that unless one is a spiritual genius, one is not going to get very far outside of an established religious tradition. Secondly … there is no easy textbook. Zen Buddhism? Hasidic Judaism? Sufism? Kashmir Shaivism? In comparison, wrestling with the complexities of a book like the Bible starts to seem easy.

I don’t see much insight into love in some parts of the Bible (the book of Joshua, for instance). I take it on faith that there is something there to find. I take it as part of the spiritual discipline of Christianity to try and find it.  It’s not the insight alone that’s essential for my spiritual growth; I have found that the process itself is also necessary. Faithfulness in a small (but difficult!) thing has helped me towards faithfulness in something greater.

The central commandment of Christianity (the fulfillment of which is both evidence of a life centered on the Spirit and also the way to that life) is to love God and love your neighbor.  Perhaps it’s just me being prickly, but forget the Bible — I find many people difficult, frustrating, and full of contradictions. Sometimes I don’t see much of love or the lovable in them. I take it on faith, however, that there is something there to find, and I take it as a discipline of Christianity to try and find it.

There is no easy textbook.


Lessons from the World Conference: One thing is necessary

Worship at the World Conference was a challenge for me.

I thought that because I am a Christian and a former Catholic I would not have issues at a conference where most of the worship would be programmed and Evangelical. I was wrong. I certainly enjoyed the worship we shared each morning. I liked singing, I liked hearing prepared messages, and I liked the chance to stand up and sit down! The problem occurred once worship was over, because no matter how much I had enjoyed it—I felt as if I hadn’t worshiped at all.
I admit I have never worn a tuxedo.
Photo thanks to Stan Shebs.

As an unprogrammed Quaker, I often feel like I am swimming in and out of the silence as if it was water, as if I was a spiritual penguin. Like the penguin, if I am floating in the living water I can find grace. On dry land, I quickly become clumsy.

At the World Conference, I quickly became clumsy. Sometimes this was literal. On one memorable day, I scraped raw the back of one ankle, skinned the same knee, bruised the other knee, grazed both palms, and opened a knuckle. Sometimes this was inner. On a different day, I felt as if I couldn’t be properly present to the people I was with. I started spending quiet prayer time in the chapel every day.

I have always known—with my mind—how vital a daily practice of contemplative prayer is for my spiritual life. At the World Conference, I finally learned this with my heart. Without prayer, I can’t live my life in the faithfulness I yearn for. With prayer, at least I can make a start.

A Buddhist meditation group meets every weekday morning at the Meetinghouse where I worship. I am often free on weekday mornings, and have long thought I should attend. This morning, for the first time, I finally did. The heart-knowledge I gained from the World Conference lent me the resolution.
I love the moment when a Biblical passage ‘opens’ for me: the moment I finally find clarity (or new light) in something that had been opaque. In Kenya, this passage opened for me:
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted by much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”


Lessons from the 6th World Conference of Friends: Spiritual Humility, Spiritual Gifts

Let me tell you about the Young Friends Epistle. The Epistle That Wasn't. The Zombie Epistle (there was substance, but no life).

The Young Friends at the World Conference (Young Adult Friends, for you NEYMers) were invited by the larger gathering to write an epistle. In response, we formed a small committee to write the thing and bring it back to our business meeting for revision and approval. I offered to record for that business session. When the epistle arrived, it was clear that the meeting wanted something more substantial than the letter we had been presented with. During the first business session we sat for four hours. There was some real worship with moving ministry arising out of it, and we felt we were very close to unity. 
Young (Adult) Friends at the
World Conference

During the second session we sat for two hours and fell apart. We were not in worship; we argued; at the last minute (when I thought we were close to approval despite it all) there was a sudden wall of resistance and we agreed not to have an epistle at all (I can't say we were "clear," because at that point there was not any gathered sense of the meeting). 

Those are the facts, more or less.

After it was obvious that we were Done Writing An Epistle, I felt all sorts of things. Relief, primarily: recording can be arduous at the best of times, and this was some of the most difficult recording I have ever done. Then, sadness. Pain. A sense of "What-could-I-have-done-better?" A desire to move on, accept that it wasn't going to happen,  let it go --- and simultaneously, a desire to hold on, to not let all of that work and worship and striving be wasted.

After that last painful business session, part of me wanted to scream, but my task was to say, "I was faithful to the Spirit; this much I know is true. Now my role is done; now I must step away."

On the last epistle I was exercised to help write, we had come to an easy unity. Therefore I had not noticed how I stepped away. I had done so seamlessly, painlessly, because the work came to its natural fulfillment. On this epistle, the work was cut off. Stepping away was hard and painful and I didn't do it perfectly --- but I did it. Because it was hard, I noticed it. Because I noticed it, I have been able to see my struggle of letting go as part of the ministry --- not a sad, amputated stump.

The exercise of many gifts --- of any creative gift --- requires an act of stepping away. Learning to step away is what releases the poem or the painting or the epistle into the world, to have life independently of its creator. Quakers talk about "laying down" a ministry. I've learned that each act of ministry must be "laid down," or it never takes root. 

I have sometimes thought that spiritual humility required downplaying my ministry. I have been wrong; that is a form of pride. Acknowledging one has a gift, faithfully using it, laying it down as called, and being clear that the fruits of that gift are not from oneself, but from God --- that takes much more humility than downplaying a gift or keeping it under a bushel.  Granted, if one does the latter, one never has to grapple with these issues!

(My favorite bit ever written about spiritual pride comes from The Screwtape Letters, where one demon is giving advice to another demon on temptation: "Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility.  Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By jove! I'm being humble,' and almost immediately pride --- pride at his own humility --- will appear.  If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of the attempt --- and so on, through as many stages as you please.  But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.")

Another thing.

Honestly, in my struggle to be humble (which plays out very much like the scenario above!), I tell myself all sorts of really crazy things.  Here's one of my favorites: "This is not you, but God through you.  Therefore, you shouldn't feel pleasure when things go well or pain when they don't. That's just ego." 

You have no idea.  Just read it. 
Oh, dear.  Other than the first sentence, it's not true, of course, but it's an easy pit to fall into. (Another Screwtape quote, while I'm at it: "[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. [God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.") 

After the business with the YF epistle, I was scolding myself along those lines.  I stopped only when a helpful friend said words to this effect: "Of course it's all right to feel pain when a gift is thwarted; it's God's will that our gifts be used. We humans refuse to do God's will all the time, in worse ways than this --- how do you think God feels?"

Right. That's the whole point of the parable of the talents, isn't it? (Matthew 25:14-30)
“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.' "
Lesson learned. It was acceptable for me to feel pain. And yet. Ultimately, at bottom --- forget the talents, the gifts, the ministry, the service --- our one task is humble obedience.  

I leave you with Milton.  As he went blind, he had to consider that he might be forever unable to exercise his formidable talents (such was not the case). 
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.


Lessons from the 6th World Conference of Friends: Community

Two weeks ago, I returned from the 6th World Conference of Friends in Nakuru, Kenya. Many other people have written beautifully summing up the experience as a whole. I don't feel up for something quite as comprehensive as what John, Ashley, and Adrian have written (linked above), so I thought I might write about the lessons I've taken away from this expedition, and how they have changed me.

NEYM. Kenya.  A banner proving it. And a palm tree.
I traveled to Kenya alone and then spent three days in Nairobi on my own, but I knew that when I arrived at the conference, I would find familiar faces.  Most larger Yearly Meetings sent multiple representatives.  Mine, New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) sent almost 20 people. Before attending the conference I knew most of them by sight and I was more closely acquainted with a smaller group.

The first few days of the conference were a whirlwind.  I was lucky: all of my luggage had come with me, I hadn't forgotten my sunscreen, my water bottle, or my Bible (three necessities!), and my body adapts easily to travel.  In addition, it turned out that Kristna, a friend from NEYM, was my room-mate, so we each had a familiar face to come home to.

Each morning a different region of the world led the conference in worship. North America's turn was on the second full day; we (that's a general we; I wasn't personally involved) had planned a combination of silent worship and a prepared message from Noah (please read his message to find out more; it was wonderful, but I'm not intending to talk about the message per se).  Noah's from my Monthly Meeting, Putney, so along with others from New England and elsewhere, I was invited to sit on the facing bench during his ministry.

At NEYM sessions last August, Steve Chase, also of Putney Meeting, gave the plenary address while everyone else from Putney sat on the facing bench in order to hold Steve, his message, and the entire assembly in gathered worship and prayer. That one hour defined my experience of last summer's Sessions. Offering the same service in Kenya, I expected, would be much the same.

It was and it wasn't, of course. The messages and the place were very different. The people were different.  I was different.  Last summer I was physically with the gathered body of my community.  Praying in Kenya I was thousands of miles away, but with this one act I unexpectedly felt transported into their midst.

Through both experiences, I felt the same open tenderness, the same uplifting love, the same sensation of being used by the Spirit. Praying for other people is like that. Praying for myself is well and good and I'm always trying to do more of it, or rather, to do it constantly: "Please, God, not my will but thine."  Praying for others at any length is transformative; doing so brings us very close to God's will. In both Kenya and New England this hour of prayer for a message, a messenger, and a gathering defined the rest of my time there: everything I saw, felt, or did was filtered through an experience of  transcendent community.

In Kenya, I was regularly used by the Spirit to provide pastoral care.  One conversation was particularly challenging.  I felt very tender towards the person I was with, and was I concerned that she find all the support that she needed.  We had only just met. I asked whether there was anyone at the conference from her Yearly Meeting, any elder or minister she could turn to.  There wasn't.  She was alone.  When I took her concern (with permission) to one of my friends and ministers, he said what I was thinking: "They sent her alone?"

At several points, I badly needed some pastoral care myself. There were a few rough spots in the conference that touched me closely.  It was, in the main (there were exceptions!), members of my Yearly Meeting who lifted me up, eldered me as needed, were the familiar face to come home to, shielded me when I was vulnerable, helped me see where I was being faithful and where I had faltered, and kept me laughing (at perfectly inappropriate moments) through it all.

It's not that the other ministers, pastors, and elders at the gathering couldn't have provided care --- to me, or to the people who had come alone.  It's not as if anyone was truly alone in this conference filled with Friends. But it's the people we work with and worship with year in and year out who can support and uplift us most consistently --- and who we can best support and uplift in turn. It's easy to forget in a conference like this, but the relationships we have with those closest to us truly are --- literally are --- the most central. These things I knew in my head, but in Kenya I learned them with my heart.

At the celebration on the final night of the conference, I was feeling a rush of emotions --- a giddy happiness at the dancing, a lingering tenderness from some tears earlier in the day, and a sense of sadness that I was leaving it all. Throughout the conference I had tried to sit with as many different people as I could, but on this last night I needed something else.  I sat next to Eden and Frederick, and in a perfectly unbiased way, we decided that our meeting was the best Yearly Meeting in the whole world.  It was the end of the conference; we should know, right?

I hope everyone that went to the conference came away knowing the same thing we did. I hope that everyone was able to come home joyfully, not sadly, feeling renewed by the great Spirit that was so gathered in Kenya and also ready for the central work of living and worshiping that is only done at home.