My Week in Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Towards a Quaker Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Poetry Sundays: Holy Sonnet VII

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

Holy Sonnet VII
John Donne

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


Book Related Afterlife Hijinks

The title here is a nod to Leah Libresco’s recent post, “Math Related Prayer Hijinks.” (Leah recently converted to Catholicism from atheism.)

In her post, Leah talks about how thoughts of the things she loves very much in life (higher level math, in her case) penetrate into her prayer life, especially into the parts of her prayer life that she isn’t very sure of yet. She then used them to point towards God:
. . . instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”
I don’t feel like that about math, but I do feel that way about great literature. I’ve noticed that my love for books has permeated the way I think about death and immortality.

Yes, I do have a crush on you.
Embarrassing, I know.
I am agnostic as to an afterlife. Quakers just don’t have much of a theology of the afterlife, being very focused on the kingdom-of-God-on-Earth. This aligns well with why I converted in the first place, but it doesn’t do much to quell my existential angst. I’m still working out how to deal with said angst in an appropriate Quaker theological context, with or without an afterlife (some very preliminary thoughts here), but in the meantime I find myself immensely comforted by . . . books. I came to this realization, pleasingly, while reading Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) by Sir Thomas Browne.

I really love Hydriotaphia. Actually, I adore it. I have a crush on this book. Egregious block-quoting coming up; I can’t help myself. You can understand the rest of my post without reading this excerpt so skip if you prefer; I’m just hoping to win converts to the love of Browne. 

Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortall right-lined circle, must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks. To be read by bare Inscriptions like many in Gruter, to hope for Eternity by Ænigmaticall Epithetes, or first letters of our names, to be studied by Antiquaries, who we were, and have new Names given us like many of the Mummies, are cold consolations unto the Students of perpetuity, even by everlasting Languages.

To be content that times to come should only know there was such a man, not caring whether they knew more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan: disparaging his horoscopal inclination and judgement of himself, who cares to subsist like Hippocrates Patients, or Achilles horses in Homer, under naked nominations, without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsame of our memories, the Entelecchia and soul of our subsistences. To be namelesse in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name, then Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pilate?

But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyramids? Herostratus lives that burnt the Temple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it; Time hath spared the Epitaph of Adrians horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamenon, [without the favour of the everlasting Register:] Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, then any that stand remembred in the known account of time? without the favour of the everlasting Register the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselahs long life had been his only Chronicle.

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento's, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.

Still here? Oh, good. 

The above passage of Browne beautifully captures my existential fears. I will die; everyone I have ever known and loved will die; the inscription even on my tombstone will pass away; humanity will know me not at all; even if my name appears in some old document an unknown futuristic scholar stumbles across, that is cold consolation indeed. I believe in some way that after my death I will return to God, but without a consistent theology of the afterlife, including belief in the persistence of identity after death, how can I comfort my fears?

I’m very aware that the answer I am about to give is not theology at all, but merely a function of how much I love, trust, define myself by, and identify with books—hence my identification with Leah's original post. I’m still working on how to use this to point towards God!

For me, right now, struggling along with my odd-duck theology and my existential fears, Browne himself is the answer.

Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf loved and read Browne nearly a hundred years ago, and must have had many of the same thoughts and emotions that I did as I read Hydriotaphia for the first time. Melville and Emerson loved and read Browne nearly a hundred years before that. Charles Lamb loved Browne before Emerson; Samuel Johnson loved Browne before Lamb.

I love Browne today, and even though I cannot expect to be a Woolf or an Emerson, a Melville or a Johnson, some part of what makes me essentially me was present in them—and that same thing, that ’me-ness‘ continues on. All of us: Browne himself, the famous readers of Browne, and the unknown readers of Browne, have together experienced the same text. After reading the same words, we all have felt the same way, thought the same way, loved Browne the same wayand together we will continue feeling, loving, and thinking a hundred years from now, and a hundred years after that, when someone, somewhere, still loves Sir Thomas Browne. 

As an afterlife it’s not much, but for now, I find that it will do.


God and Images of Rape in Jeremiah

I rarely feel alienated by gender-exclusive language. I am comfortable reading ‘man,’  ‘mankind,’  ‘he,’  ‘his,’ etc. as inclusive of me, a woman. (I feel similarly when reading novels with predominantly male characters.) I don’t know why I feel this way (I could speculate) and I certainly don’t draw any ideological conclusions from this; it’s just the way I am. Overall, I am rarely aware of my gender while reading.

Sometimes, though, I approach a passage and am suddenly very aware of my gender, and how my gender alters my reading of the text.

Let us consider Jeremiah 20:7.

My handy ESV (if you doubted that I was comfortable with gender exclusive language, the fact that I predominantly use an ESV should convince you, although I really own it because it was the most convenient wide-margin Bible I could find) renders this verse,

“O Lord, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.”

I can’t get much useful meaning out of the first two lines; I’ve never experienced God as a deception. The second two lines strike me as even less useful. Yes, God is stronger than mortals. Is this news? Nevertheless, it’s inoffensive.

I’m reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, and he makes an entirely  convincing argument that the proper rendering of the verse is,

“O Lord, Thou hast seduced me,
And I am seduced;
Thou hast raped me
And I am overcome.”

That makes, theologically, a heck of a lot more sense. It’s much more powerful language. I get it. It ‘opens’ the verse for me, and gives me a new perspective on the prophetic experience. Here’s Heschel:
“This interpretation betrays an ambivalence in the prophet’s understanding of his own experience. The call to be a prophet is more than an invitation. It is first of all a feeling of being enticed, of acquiescence or willing surrender. But this winsome feeling is only one aspect of the experience. The other aspect is a sense of being ravished or carried away by violence, of yielding to overpowering force against one’s will. The prophet feels both the attraction and the coercion of God, the appeal and the pressure, the charm and the stress. He is conscious of both voluntary identification and forced capitulation.”

Yes. Absolutely, yes. That speaks to my experience of God. I have felt coerced, enthralled, overcome. There is appeal and pressure, charm and stress. “All your waves and your billows have gone over me!”

And yet.

As a woman, the image of God as rapist gives me the heebie-jeebies. Surely I cannot be the only person to feel likewise—hence, presumably, the more neutral rendering of even a conservative, literal translation like the ESV. I can get over my distaste, but just barely, and I’ve never been sexually assaulted. I imagine this translation would be much more problematic for someone who has. Yes, the prophet is speaking about a loving coercion—but rape is never loving; rape is terrifying and horrible. Yes, part of the prophet’s point is that a genuine experience of God can include fear—but that is fear caused by the prophet’s human experience of an overwhelming Divine, not fear caused by a woman’s victimization. Yes, I see the point, and find the metaphor useful—but it still makes my stomach squirm.

I find myself very interested when I notice my gender intersecting with my reading of a text. (I am assuming that women are more likely to be uncomfortable with this passage than men; perhaps that is a false assumption.) Ultimately, despite my qualms, I find this rendering of the passage useful and compelling—and I wonder what that says about me and my approach to the Bible.

I wonder if I would find this passage equally useful without my queasiness. (I felt similarly queasy all the way through Lolita, and know I wouldn’t remember that book so vividly or find it so compelling without its ability to induce a vague nausea.) I wonder where the line is between language that provokes us into deeper thought, and language that is simply offensive—language that pushes our limits, and language that is too far outside of them for us to follow.

While reading this passage of Heschel, I couldn’t stop thinking about Donne. One of his Holy Sonnets uses very similar imagery to convey a slightly different, but related, point. I don’t feel any queasiness about this sonnet. I love it whole-heartedly:
Batter my heart, three person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 
I’m not entirely sure why I find this language less problematic than the language in Jeremiah. Part of it is because this speaker is much more clearly longing to be overcome. Part of it is that ‘ravishment’ is part of a whole spectrum of forceful imagery (batter, break, blow, burn, imprison, enthrall), not the predominant image. Part of it is simply that I love Donne and, in a weird way, ‘trust’ him more than I trust the author of Jeremiah. Part of it is that the word ‘ravish’ has a whole different range of connotation for a modern reader than the word ‘rape’ does.

When, if at all, is it ever acceptable for a writer to use images of rape in this way? Does it change depending on the gender of the author? Does it change depending on the context they were writing in?

How do others notice their gender identity affecting their reading of the Bible?


Poetry Tuesdays

Tuesdays are for poetry. Why? Because every day is for poetry.

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample!
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

—Emily Dickinson


It’s all OK, and yet it’s not. It’s not OK, and yet it is.

I really messed up this past week. I really, you know, fouled up, mishandled the situation, dropped the ball, lost my way, crossed the line, did everything but jump the shark.

I woke up around 1630 on Saturday (I’m on a night shift schedule), realized the full extent of my idiocy, and started crying. I felt unbelievably awful—just gutted. I needed to talk it over.

Has anyone else noticed how incredibly uncomfortable most people are with legitimate sadness or discomfort? The immediate reaction is: This person is upset. I must fix it. I was told, “Hey, it’s OK; nobody was hurt, no real damage was done, nothing you did was intentional, everyone has those days, shit happens, you were tired, you were overworked, it’s OK.” (My friend Honor wrote about this phenomenon here.)

Well, all right. All of those things are true—and don’t make up or alter the fact that I really blew it. Those kind, true words could not help me, because I still needed to come to terms with everything I had done wrong.

Sometimes what is needed in response to wrongdoing or pain is not smoothing it away, but sitting with it. Being with it. Acknowledging it fully.

Sometimes passing through pain or wrongdoing in this manner is the only way that a person can move forward and find healing or forgiveness.

I spend a fair amount of time around people who are in situations much worse than mine—situations ranging from crummy to downright awful. I do a lot of hand-holding, hugging, and just plain sitting with people who are very ill or near death, or who love a person who is very ill or near death.

I never say “it’s OK.” It’s not OK. Most of the time it’s downright horrible. It’s abysmal. When you’re in your forties and dying and crying out against God because of how unfair and awful it is, I am not going to smooth that away. It is unfair. It is awful.

Yes. It is.

I’ve noticed that if I sit with someone in their pain long enough, not saying anything ‘comforting’ but instead listening, acknowledging, and affirming, almost always the person sort of comes up, looks around, and says something along the lines of, “We had a good life together,” or “I am so well loved,” or “Life is wonderful anyway.”

Yeah. That, too.

In a very profound way, that revelation of ongoing life and love is even more true than the reality of the pain.

Loving, well-intentioned people want to give that revelation to a person who is in pain, hence all the smoothing-over and hand-waving and negating. The problem is, one can’t just hand out insight when a person is in pain. Turns out, trying to force-feed insight silences and minimizes the sufferer. (Plus, the speaker sounds like a particularly insensitive Hallmark card.)

The only way to get to any real revelation is through an honest, messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes inconveniently lengthy experience of pain.

This understanding is integral to my theology. This is part of how I understand the cross, Holy Saturday, and the Resurrection.

Go ahead and think of the Easter story however you like—a story somebody made up, or something that really happened, willed by God. Whatever.

Either way, it didn’t have to go down like that. Jesus could have died on the cross, been taken down, and popped right back into life again. He could have given the whole tomb business a skip. Heck, he could have given the whole dying in agonizing pain business a skip. He didn’t. He spent two nights and a whole day thoroughly, incontrovertibly, dead. Why? 

Because the pain of death, loss, and life in general is real and it is awful and it must be lived through. Even though in the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well,” nothing negates the cross. It’s both–and, not either–or; Easter does not annihilate Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Resurrection does not cancel pain. They exist together.


I have messed up and do mess up and will mess up.
I am absolutely, unconditionally, loved and lovable.

It’s both–and, not either–or. They exist together. I screw up, I really do, and nothing will ever change that. I am loved and lovable and nothing will ever change that, either. This is one of the ways I understand sin and redemption.

When I finally called up someone wise and said, “I’m a total screw-up and I hate myself,” I was told not, “No you’re not; I wouldn’t love you if you were,” but rather (granted not in so many words), “Yes you are, so am I, it doesn’t matter, I love you.”


Daily Prayer

You know what Quakers are really bad at? Actually talking about our spiritual lives. Kind of at all. Ever.

I remember when I started out in Quakerism, I kept hearing how important it was to have a “daily devotional practice.” I remember having little idea what that even meant, let alone how to implement it, and I had even less idea who to ask for help! It would have been so useful for me to have someone to talk to.

Do we think it’s embarrassing to talk about such things? Too private to discuss? Do we feel inadequate? Perhaps we’re worried about offending each other. I’ve felt all of the above. Yet unless we share our practice and struggles with each other, how can we learn, or support each other in spiritual growth?  I haven’t become an expert in the seven years since my convincement, but I want to set an example. Therefore, I am screwing my courage to the sticking plate and writing this post.

Brief Background:

The ultimate goal of my personal devotional life is to make possible the unceasing prayer and submission so beautifully described in Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity . . . etc., etc.

Unceasing prayer is sort of a tall order, and I am nowhere near to it. At the best of times, my awareness of God flickers in and out, like a guttering candle. I set myself up to encourage the flickers, coax them into a flame, abide in them. Each of the specific practices I list below kindles a flicker.

When I first came to Quakerism from Catholicism (via atheism), I thought I had to throw out all the memorized prayers I had once used. I thought there was something inherently un-Quakerly in praying with words, especially memorized words. I no longer feel this way. Words help me slip into an attitude of prayer when I’m not in a prayerful state of mind at all. Memorized words, especially the words of other people, release me from the need to be perfect on my own.

Specific Practices:

I pray every time I hear a siren.

This was the very first prayer practice I took up as a Quaker. The autumn after my convincement, I was living directly across the street from the local hospital, just a few doors down from the ambulance station. There were many sirens!

For years now, I’ve paused when I hear a siren, praying for compassion and wisdom in those going to help, courage and peace in those they will be helping. Sometimes I don’t use words at all, but hold the EMTs (cops, firefighters) in my heart, as well as whomever they are driving towards.

I pray while my morning tea is steeping.

I got this idea from Laurel’s Kitchen, believe it or not. I like my tea strong, but not stewed, and a decade of the rosary (on my fingers) is just about the right time. (That’s an Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and a Glory Be, for all you folks who didn’t grow up Catholic!)

There are prescribed meditations (mysteries) for each day of the week, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes I pick one, but mostly I just pray. I don’t consider myself “Quatholic,” but I do enjoy this connection to the faith of my childhood.

I pray before meals—when I remember!

Rob, my husband, loves this practice (he's wonderful at gratitude) and is good at reminding me. Usually we hold hands and have a “Quaker moment”—maybe a minute’s grateful silence before we eat. If I’m in a larger group of friends with mixed religious (or irreligious) backgrounds, I get everyone to hold hands, and we smile at each other and say, “Blessings on the meal!”

If I’m alone I close my eyes and offer simple gratitude. If I’m in public it really is only a moment, as I’m shy. Sometimes I mentally recite my childhood grace, the one my family used: “God, we thank you for this food, for rest and home and all things good. For wind and rain and sun above, but most of all for those we love. Amen.” If I forget to offer gratitude before I eat, I offer it afterwards. Sometimes I offer it afterwards anyway.

I pray on my runs.

I reserve my runs for intercessory prayer, an idea I got from Kate Braestrup’s book Beginner’s Grace.  I always start with myself, and I say, “Dear God, please give me love, and health, and my daily bread. Please give me courage, and wisdom, and peace.” I repeat over and over until I feel sated (this is my time for self care), and then I move outward, in widening circles.

Rob is always first. Then I pray for anyone in my daily life who has been annoying me, hurting me, or frustrating me. Then I pray for anyone in my daily life who needs extra love, healing, or help. Then I pray for loved ones, usually one by one, anyone who rises to mind. Then I pray for organizations, nations, the planet.

Ideally daily, but really a few times a week, I have my own Meeting for Worship.

I’m semi-programmed. I almost always start with a book, although I’m very picky about devotional literature. I often use the Bible. New Seeds of Contemplation is an old favorite. A Testament of Devotion is a newer favorite. Linda Chidsey from NYYM introduced me to Elizabeth Yates’s A Book of Hours (sadly out of print), which I cherish. I love the poetry of Rilke, Hopkins, and Donne, and use all three devotionally. As weather allows, I sit outside on our deck.

I read until a line or a verse catches my attention, and then I slip into silent contemplation. If I lose focus, I pick up the book again until I find another starting place. Merton describes my experience exactly:

“If giving up [active prayer] simply means that your mind goes dead and your will gets petrified, and you lean against the wall and spend your half hour of meditation wondering what you are going to get for supper, you had better keep yourself occupied with something definite. . . .

. . . This is where a book may sometimes help you. It is quite normal to use the Bible, or a spiritual book of some kind, to “get started” even in the kind of prayer where you do not do much actual “thinking.” When you find some paragraph or sentence that interests you, stop reading and turn it over in your mind and absorb it and contemplate it and rest in the general, serene, effortless consideration of the thought, not in its details but as a whole, as something held and savored in its entirety: and so pass from this to rest in the quiet expectancy of God. If you find yourself getting distracted, go back to the book, to the same sentence or to another. You can start your mental prayer in this way not only by using a book but also by looking at a picture or a crucifix or best of all in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but also out in the woods and under the trees. The sweep and serenity of a landscape, fields and hills, are enough to keep a contemplative riding the quiet interior tide of his peace and his desire for hours at a time.”

I didn’t wake up one morning and begin all these practices at once. I added them one at a time, letting each become a comfortable habit (I do often forget to pray before meals, for whatever reason), then adding another. Daily contemplation is my newest habit (I had thought it should be my first, but found I couldn't sustain it without all the smaller habits I listed), which is why I still only manage it a few times a week!

So what is your practice?


Poetry Tuesdays: Spring and Fall

Tuesdays are for posting public domain poetry. Why? Why not?

In reference to this poem I could go on about the recurrence of falling leaves as a symbol of death in Western literature, or the biblical allusion in lines 12–13 . . . but instead I will say that the last two lines send chills down my spine. Every time.

Spring And Fall: To a young child
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
No mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Holy Community

You know what my gut reaction was to the week Rachel Held Evans just spent in blogging about how women are equal to men, and should have an equal voice in ministry?

Shock and horror. Not because I disagree with her—quite the opposite—but because in my (wider) faith community, that's actually a debate. How could I possibly affiliate myself (even by proxy) with people who believe that women are somehow less than men? (Or any other of the long list of upsetting Evangelical beliefs.) This is perhaps the most common question I am asked by non-religious acquaintances who find out I’m religious. And to them I say:

Good damned question.

Obviously the unspoken assumption here is that there are some people or communities so repugnant that a morally-minded person should avoid even remote association with them at all costs. I don’t think I disagree with that. For instance, I feel like that about the KKK.

But honestly, folks, other than the KKK, how many of our choices are really that straightforward?

What about our choices in friendship? Should I stop bringing my neighbor a pie at Christmas because she’s (hypothetically) a conservative Catholic and doesn't support birth control for women or LGBTQ rights? Should I leave my book group because it turns out many of them are hawkish Republicans? Should I ditch my old college friend who said something remarkably offensive about Jesus on Facebook? Should I ditch my old high school friend who ridiculed evolution on Facebook? What about my friends who are anti-vaccine activists? Should I ditch them?

What about organizations? Should I not join with Occupy Wall Street because many Occupiers hold views more extreme than my own, some of which I think are damaging? Should I refuse to apply for a nursing position at a Catholic hospital because I disagree with their stance on women’s health? Should I quit my job at my own hospital because they’re union busting?

What about donations? Can I give time or money to my conservative neighbor when she has hip replacement surgery and can't cook for herself? If her church (which I ideologically can’t stand) is organizing meal deliveries on her behalf (lots of churches do this), can I involve myself with them for the purpose of donating food to my neighbor?

Wait, it gets better!

If, say, I’m passionate about sand water filtration devices in Africa, but the only organization that’s really promoting sand water filtration devices in Africa holds ideology I disagree with, can I still donate time or money to them? Can I donate if I agree broadly with the ideology and the work, but have deep disagreements about one or more of the specifics of their policies? What if I agree with everything the organization thinks and does, but they themselves give money to organizations I oppose?

How far do I have to remove myself from offensive ideas before I can really feel comfortable?

What would my life look like if I excised from it all contact with people different from myself? 

What worries me is how sometimes these discussions start sounding like purity contests. As if we and our group are ideologically perfect, and we need to draw heavier and heavier lines around ourselves to protect us from The Other. As if fellowship was contamination and a diminution of our own holy righteousness. I can’t think of a worse, more damaging, or more isolating way to go about it.

(Nor a more anti-Biblical way, but that’s another blog post; the curious might read Luke 18:9–14 and Mark 2:13–17, just to see what I mean.)

Let me put it out there: We are none of us that pure. All of us hold beliefs that, on closer examination, are questionable. The worst form of hypocrisy is not a failure to practice what we preach, but rather holding others to different standards than those to which we hold ourselves. 

I prefer to approach dilemmas by asking, “Where is love in this? How can I show my love most faithfully?” Approached in this manner, the answers to difficult questions may still be different for different people—but no matter which decision we make, the conversation has changed.

My personal answer almost always involves a loving, challenging engagement with a group I want to be part of and yet whose ideologies trouble me. (I am not talking about abusive relationships or organizations.) In my experience, a strategy of loving engagement changes more than just the conversation.

I’m going to tell a short story about one of my closest friends. I’ll call him by his middle initial to preserve some privacy, and freely admit that anyone who knows both of us probably knows exactly who I’m talking about. Compromises, compromises.

When S. and I met, we disagreed about almost everything we discussed. Just to start off a very long list, I was an agnostic studying evolutionary biology, and he was a conservative Christian creationist. You know. Minor disagreements like that. Nevertheless, we became friends. Yes, we argued. We offended each other. We probably even yelled once or twice. We never seemed to lose sight of the belief that ours was a friendship worth having. Ten years later, we’re still close friends. I’m a liberal Christian. He’s spiritual but not religious.

I won’t say that we changed each other. Lots of things in both of our lives changed us. Further, neither of us entered the friendship with that intention. Sure, we both wished that the other one had the “right idea” about all sorts of things, but convincing each other of it was not the point of the friendship. If it had been, the friendship would have fallen apart. Coming into any relationship with that sort of patronizing idea is one of the quickest ways to sabotage it.

I will say that via our ongoing, challenging, frustrating, rewarding, and loving friendship, we both were changed.

If I can change anything in my world, that’s how I think I can change it.


Women's Speaking Justified: A Guest Post by Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell (1614–1702) is often considered the “mother of Quakerism.” She was one of George Fox's earliest converts to the new denomination (eventually marrying him), and she was a powerful minister in her own right, speaking and preaching passionately for the Religious Society of Friends. She was a member of the gentry and often used her influence to help other members of the Society, but that did not fully protect her from several rounds of imprisonment for her religious practices, including a refusal to take oaths and holding Quaker Meetings in her house. While in prison, she wrote prolifically, including her most famous (1666) work, “Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus: And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ's own Command, before he Ascended to the Father.”

My denomination doesn't always get things right. We have our heads in a mess about all sorts of issues. I can't even say that we are a paradisal haven of gender equality; we are not exempt from the modern world's lingering patriarchy. But always, from the very beginning of our movement, we have been perfectly clear that the Power and Spirit of Christ speaks through women's preaching and ministry just as strongly as it speaks through men's. Margaret Fell literally wrote the book on this subject.

I have reworked Fell's essay (including its 1667 coda) into contemporary English. In places I have stayed very close to her original language, but in other places I have gone farther, restructuring entire paragraphs to make clearer logical sense, and occasionally going out on a limb and inserting a clarifying meaning. For example, it's not immediately apparent to many modern readers that the "Seed of Woman" in Genesis was once commonly understood to mean Christ, and may also in Margaret Fell's mind have referred to the Seed of Christ within all, as in the Quaker doctrine of the Inward Light. Therefore I admit I tinkered with that paragraph heavily in order to make both readings possible to the modern understanding.

Mark Baker-Wright has also rewritten this pamphlet into modern English. His is probably much more scholarly than mine, and it's certainly more word-for-word. His version is the NASB — mine's the NLT! Either way, his version was very useful to me for finding exactly which verse Fell was referencing (her own citations are very unreliable), so thank you, Mark!

This is a rough draft. I've wanted to dig deeper into foundational Quaker texts for some time, and was finally inspired to do this by Rachel Held Evans's call for a “synchroblog” on the topic of women's equality in the Church. I therefore rushed a little to get it in at the right time. I know there are some irregularities and rough spots which further editing would refine.

Finally, Margaret Fell was English, and therefore, although I am an American, where spellings vary I used the British standard. I apologize for any Americanisms that slipped through; I'm told my diction sounds very American, but diction is much harder to change at will!

Despite all of this, I hope I have stayed true to the spirit of the original. What I have not done is to alter the text's original fire. If it sounds fierce or beautiful, insulting or provocative—that's just Margaret Fell.

Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures (All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus): And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ's own Command, before he Ascended to the Father (John 20:17)