Monday, May 29, 2006

How I became a Quaker ... now a totally trivial, made-for-blog mini-series!

Part 2: Safe places

What I know about the history of Quakers seems to indicate that they were pretty heavily invested in the Protestant work ethic. That being the case, I'm sure our heavenly Friends are not looking down upon me with approval as I write a blog entry instead of trying to use the time to catch up on my work. Oh well....

When I was beginning to attend meeting for worship, the clerk sometimes broke meeting a bit early and announced, "Friends, today is the day we Quakers hold meeting for business, so after a short break, let's reconvene."

Not feeling ready to attend a meeting for business, I left the first few times I heard that announcement. Then one day I decided to stay and observe.

One of the business items that a Friend brought before the group that morning was a request from two ladies who were not present, friends of his but not Friends themselves, to use the meetinghouse for a commitment ceremony. A same-sex commitment ceremony -- just in case I need to spell it out for you, gentle reader.

I waited for lightening to strike the building.

This was the first time I had ever been in the company of persons gathered as believers and practitioners of a religion who were openly talking about people...uh...who were intending together...with the blessing of God.

Then the Friend said something that I'll never forget:

"You may have noticed Gail and Kathy (not their real names) here attending meeting the past few weeks. They told me they feel safe here."

That's when lightening hit me.

They felt safe at the meetinghouse ... they felt safe among Quakers.

And I thought of all the Christian denominations I knew about, including the one I had grown up in (and had been married in and had baptized my children into)...and I thought: Many gay people feel threatened
or judged when they go to pray in those places. And I wondered for the first time in my life: How can any church say it proclaims the message of Jesus knowing (for they must know) that there are people sitting in the congregation who don't feel safe, who feel judged?

As the discussion progressed, I learned that this was not the first time such a request had been brought before meeting for business, and that the meeting members had already threshed* the question of whether or not to accept gay persons and had eventually decided in the affirmative.

'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Wherever some of God's children are threatened, all are threatened, and wherever some of God's children are made to feel safe and welcome, then all are truly safe and truly welcome. This, I think, is what the parable of the wedding feast is about in Chapter 22 of the Gospel of Matthew.

And you know, I'm straight, but I realized that
I felt safe there too.
*"Threshing Session: A gathering of Friends to consider in depth a controversial
issue but in a way that is free from the necessity of reaching a decision." See: "Glossary." Faith and Practice. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
East meets West

"...our true identity is at the level of spirit and nowhere else." -- Peace Is the Way by Deepak Chopra

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."
-- French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (not sure which of his works)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

In the present

I always feel that I'm just basking in the Light that pours through the windows of our meetinghouse. This morning I thought of the words of Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning":

And the light poured in like butterscotch,
stuck to all my senses...
Won't you stay? We'll put on the day
and we'll talk in present tenses.

This morning as the Light was pouring in, I realized how during meeting for worship we give ourselves permission to be in the present. We do not recite prayers that were formulated long ago. We don't re-enact or commemorate deeds done in the past, nor do we fret about the future. To be in the present is t
o be truly happy. If your mind is dwelling on how you used to be happy or fast-forwarding to some time in the future when you will be happy, then that doesn't say much for how you're feeling right now.

To be in the present is to have everything we need. It is letting ourselves sit like Mary at the feet of the Teacher, listening as he talks to us in present tenses, as he replenishes us spiritually he encourages us to bask in the present that is the present. And it made me think that the Master sends us forth to give others the gift of a happy present as well.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, painted by Jan Vermeer around 1664.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Deepak Chopra and ashram memories

I've just finished reading Peace Is the Way, by Deepak Chopra. I tend to be a bit wary of gurus who come preaching love and expanded consciousness in America. Many of them get quite rich in the process (as has Dr. Chopra), which causes me to become suspicious of their real intentions. However, Deepak Chopra's tone, while appropriately assured, is very warm and empathetic, radiating genuine love and concern. He properly credits Quaker peace activist A.J. Muste with the maxim that inspired the title of the book: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way." (BTW, an inspiring article on Muste can be found in the April issue of Friends Journal.)

I found the book very uplifting, if uneven. Dr. Chopra has a way of summarizing key concepts in a series of pithy, concrete phrases. OK, some of them sound faintly platitudinous. But hey, just because something's a truism, doesn't mean it's not true. Anyway, I did lots of underlining.

The book begins with a discussion of ou
r fear of "them" since 9/11 and our search for security (through military means, of course), continues with our current atmosphere of hyperpatriotism and "toxic nationalism" ("Nationalism is sophisticated tribalism," Dr. Chopra writes, quoting Krishnamurti), and then segues into our ideas about God (who takes sides in conflicts ... our side, naturally...). After awhile, however, the thread of ideas seems to drift a bit. I think I sort of get lost during the final two chapters, in which the author describes "The Body at Peace," and distinguishes true from false hope. But I think that with a little review, I'll get the message. Anyway, more on the author's ideas in a later entry.

When reading about our true nature:

"The way of peace tells us that our true identity is at the level of spirit and nowhere else. All other identities are temporary. Many are false."

the illusion of this world --maya-- and the illusion that we are separate from one another and from God:

"...closeness to God, a life without separation from one's source."

and about the true nature of God: "pure consciousness"... I heard the words of another guru and of satsangs past.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I used to spend our vacations at an ashram where the residents and guests practiced bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion...devotion to the teacher --the guru-- as well as devotion t
o the "inner guru" ... maybe another way of saying "that of God" in all of us.

I never got past the elementary yoga postures. As a matter of fact, until my cardio-kickboxing class that I've been attending for a year now, I've always been dismally unsuccessful at any form of physical activity. I didn't particularly care for getting up at 5:30 either but, considering that we turned in at 9:00pm, I wasn't sleep deprived. The ashram food was good the first few times we visited. That was when they were serving Indian cuisine, and I've had a fondness for it ever since. But at a certain point the guru decided that the ashram would go macrobiotic. He considered this the purest diet of all. I never could acquire a taste for daikon and those other root vegetables...or miso soup.

But I loved the chanting. I had been in choirs and liturgical groups all my life, and the Sanskrit was downright intriguing. I've always had an attraction to languages. (Hadn't I sung in Latin?) The strange thing was that once back home, I could never remember how the chants went. Though a chant would last 20 minutes or more, accompanied by tabla and other drums, as brothers and sisters added tambourines, finger symbols, and bells, as our voices swirled upward in a great crescendo and everyone rose bodily and began to dance, and I was sure that chant would reverberate inside of me for the rest of my life ...shri Ram jay Ram jay jay Ram... I would get home and not be able to sing more than two notes. The particular modulations of Eastern music just couldn't seem to take root in my too-Western brain, even thought the chants were simplicity itself. But each time we went back to the ashram, I was eager to reimmerse myself in them.

I didn't care for the fact that some of the brothers and sisters adopted traditional white Indian garb. It struck me as an affectation. But I'm sure it felt natural to them, so that was fine. Those who formally became disciples of the guru were given Sanskrit names: Gayatri, Mirabai, Bhishma, Pragnya, Govinda... They were really beautiful sounding names. Some disciples took the next, the highest, step and became renunciates. The men shaved their heads and the women cut their hair very short. They wore only white and received yet a another name.

We learned a few Sanskrit terms here and there ... like the suffix -ji, which is like putting "dear" or "beloved' in front of the name in English: guruji = dear guru, bapuji = beloved Daddy, an affectionate term for our guru's spiritual teacher. My husband and I still address birthday and anniversary cards with each other's name and the suffix -ji.

While I felt a bit rebellious toward some of the practices, I came to recognize and appreciate that everything, from morning yoga to vegetarianism, was always offered, never forced. It was recognized that each individual progressed along the path at his or her own pace. No one was ever blamed or made to feel guilty. The guru encouraged everyone to take responsibility for his/her spiritual development, to let it unfold naturally ... the way the lotus opens to the sun...flexibility not rigidity... so when Deepak Chopra talks about thinking for oneself in spiritual matters, it sounds familiar. And it reminds me of what I liked most about spending time at the ashram, the place where I first learned that God doesn't whip us into shape, but lets us gradually grow in the Light.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Of walls, fences, and Frost-y wisdom

'Good fences make good neighbors'.
said the old man...
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in

their conversations
their plans
their connivances
their plots

or walling out

they hate us
they hate our freedoms
they hate our Constitution
they hate Christ
they hate Moses
they’ll use our freedoms to destroy us
they’ll poison our water
they’ll spread disease spores in the air

they don’t look like us
they don't smell like us
they want what we have
they’ll use up our resources
they’ll make babies here
there'll be more of them than of us

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

cooling the white-hot hatred

And spills the upper boulders in the sun

dropping stones
abandoning arms

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast

gap that doesn’t need mending
hearts broken asunder
gaping, welcoming spirits
opened minds
a two-way street
letting thoughts come and go
as suspicions
like dandelions
blow away
letting resources out
taking strangers in
walk two or more abreast
and understanding grows
there’s room for all
fruit enough for all
in the garden
the Father built

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Gathered Meeting
"For one day within your temple heals every day alone."
Tim Manion, after Ps. 27

No pulpit
  or preacher
no organ
  or carillon

as the scent
  of rough-hewn
  wooden benches
  like incense

and sunlight
  the modest
  whitewashed walls

  we breathe forth
  the Spirit
  into our midst
our hearts
  flames of a common fire
  radiate forth
    the Master
      the Teacher
        the Comforter

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

How I became
a Quaker ... now a totally trivial, made-for-blog mini-series!

Part 1

It's almost vacation time for our family, almost time to go to the Magic Kingdom. No, gentle reader (as Dorothy Parker affectionately called her fans), I do not mean Disney World. There is nothing magical about a place where every building, every shelf, every telephone pole is branded with the insignia of the mouse ears.
At least, not to me. I visited there twice with my family and never felt so claustrophobic in all my life. It was years before The Truman Show came out, but when I saw that movie, I identified instantly with the hero, captive in a make-believe world where his life is scripted from birth. My idea of a vacation is going somewhere real.

What's real, you ask? The painted desert, mesas whose multicolored strata reveal their age, the night sky so unpolluted by artificial lights that you can actually see the mythical shapes and characters the Ancients saw in the constellations...adobe churches and bleeding crucifixes...arroyos and canyons other words, New Mexico ... in other words, Ghost Ranch.

I went there on vacation with the family about 6 years
ago. Barely recovered from a serious bout of depression, my previous fervent religious practice and beliefs reduced to the dessicated state of a
tumbleweed blowing across the desert, my belief in God at its most tenuous.

Walking the length and breadth of the ranch for more than a week --far from the highway, without TV or even a radio-- I heard something I never remembered hearing before: silence.

What was the silence like? I can only compare it to the heightened, distinctive taste o
f each morsel of food after you've been ill and haven't eaten for a long time... white bread, orange juice, a bowl of chicken soup... you relish every bite, sip, and slurp. It's like that out in the desert when a bird squawks or the kids yell to one another as they play tag. Everyday sounds become startling, standing stand out as they do in sharp relief against the background of quiet stillness.

The first year we vacationed at Ghost Ranch, I wasn't sure God even existed. The second year, I sort of felt the the third year, I recognized the voice of the Divine in the silence and discovered inner tranquility. Back home, I felt severely tranquility-deprived. During my fourth year out there I decided that upon my return home, I was going to look for a place of worship where I would find the same inner peace.

During my stay at Ghost Ranch that year, I had met a very dynamic young woman who was a United Church of Christ minister. She was a wife,
a mother, a jogger, and really ...well, real. (Needless to say, the clergy of the church I had grown up in and in which I had been very active had long since ceased to seem real to me.) I thought that I'd like to belong to a church that had ministers who were involved in all the everyday stuff that I was. So I looked on the Internet for UCC churches in my area and identified one close by to try on a Sunday morning....

Then I remembered that just a bit farther down the road was a Friends meeting...and I remembered being curious now and then about what a Quaker worship service was like. (People had told me it was boring.) And so I dropped in on the Quakers that Sunday morning in August. I guess I must have read something ahead of time about just going in and sitting quietly... and I did...and it just seemed so natural. The simplicity of the interior had an instant calming effect on my spirit. No one preached or recited pre-fab prayers. A young woman gave some vocal ministry, and that seemed natural too. No one sang either, and I've been a music minister all my life. But for the moment I didn't miss it. (More about singing later.) Just quiet...and best of all, the assurance of God's presence.

Discovery #1: Divine presence in the inner tranquility
to be continued...
Logo of the Sheffield Quakers. Used with permission.
Rock formation from website of the National Park Service

Monday, May 8, 2006

Just "another method of survival..."

I'm having trouble processing this one. Only the BBC and the Washington Post seem to be reporting this horrible story coming out of Liberia:
Save the Children UK said an alarming number of girls as young as 8 were having sex with older men, including policemen, teachers, aid workers and U.N. peacekeepers, in exchange for money, food or favors such as a ride in a car or watching a film.

"There are signi
ficant developments which indicate the communities are becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that sex in exchange for goods and services is anothermethod of survival," Save the Children said in its 20-page report. (from today's Washington Post)
And from the BBC:
Girls from the age of eight to 18 years were being sold for sex, "commonly referred to as 'man business'," the report noted.
In spite of investigations that have been going on since 2002, UN peacekeepers are still among the perpetrators.

Children are really the most vulnerable, the most powerless. Where there's poverty and misery, they're always at the bottom of the heap.

Daria sings For All the World's Children...

For all the world’s children
Here’s a song and a prayer
That you’ll reach out for love
And it will always be there

That you’ll rise like the wind
And shine like the stars
And that you’ll always remember
How special you are

That you’ll always find friendship
And folks who are kind
Who can share your joys with you
And strengthen your mind

And that your home will be a place
From which the best journeys start
And that you’ll fly in your lifetime
On wings of the heart

For all the world’s children
I wish justice and peace
And a world that respects you
And your dignity

So you can rise like the moon
And shine your light far...
And always remember
How special you are.

Monday, May 1, 2006

On a lighter note...

I think that today marks a full year of cardio-kickboxing. This is the longest I've ever stuck with
an exercise program!

We jump rope, too!