Friday, September 25, 2009

The crusader against insufficient questions and answers

Just finished reading Krista Tippett's book Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters--and How to Talk about It. The author hosts the weekly American Public Media's progam Speaking of Faith, which airs at 7:00am in the Philly area, so I rarely catch it--or if I do, it's usually the tail end. I usually try to sleep a bit later on Sundays. However, Tippett certainly know how to talk about religion. I don't know how to describe her style -- sort of rapturous metaphysical reality. Her writing sometimes bears the reader up on a warm, sensuous wave; other times it jolts the reader awake with a cold splash of truth expressed in surprising terms. Here are a few of her jeweled expressions:

Silence, embraced, stuns with its presence, its pregnant reality--a reality that does not negate reason and argument, but puts them in their place.

My mother tongue was Christianity.

I learned to be wary that summer of a pious approach to life that saw good intentions and righteous prayer as substitutes for planning and pragmatic action. This way of faith only deepened the despair it was called to heal.

This sentence could easily be entitled "The seeker's manifesto":

I have become a crusader against insufficient questions and answers that stand in, prematurely and destructively, for both justice and mystery.

[religious moderation contrasted with fanaticism]
Developing eyes and ears for moderation does not mean denying the importance of religion in human life. It means inviting and enabling the devout to bring the best of their tradition to bear in the world.

Each person's presence, action, and words in the world matter, however inconsequential they may seem against the backdrop of this evening's news. Religions remind us of this fact, this faith. Like any political or economic theory, this is empirically unverifiable. I choose it. Week after week, my conversation partners illuminate the imaginative and pragmatic possibilities of this choice. soon as human beings pick up a piece of the truth, they make their mark on it. They codify and literalize. They distort the rest of the picture to fit their chosen center.

In some mysterious way, "containing" religion [as opposed to a vaguely practiced spirituality] helps us unlock the sacred within us. It enables us to participate in the human encounter with the divine even when our own spirits are dry.

"Thin religion," as [Croation American theologian Miroslav Volf] describes it, is not religion lacking in zeal. It is religiosity reduced to a formula, and this can render the passion behind it very dangerous.

As a journalist I'm deeply aware of how strangely tricky it is to make goodness seem relevant, or at least as perversely thrilling as evil.

On the nature of religious mystery

Mystery resists absolutes.

If mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our five senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed. We have to live with that, and struggle with its implications together. Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing.

Introduce mystery into any conversation and the conversation gentles; reality doesn't lose its sharp edges but the sharp edges are not all, not the end.

On our spiritual practice as we get older

I need to discern my tenets of truth constantly, know their texture, revisit and cleave to their assurances as keenly as I feel how they are changing and expanding as I grow older.

And there's a beautiful, startling oxymoron at the heart of this sentence:

From the beginning of my life of listening, I have observed fierce humility as a quality in the lives of people I admire.

This quote from
The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr, situated close to the end of the book, could be the credo of this fearless crusader:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness. Reinhold Niebuhr
The Niebuhr quote invites us to let the light of the discerning Spirit shine even on the good that we try to do so that we see it from the perspective of God's eternity. We can not in our lifetime know all the consequences even of our good deeds. We rarely discover a definitive answer or solution to any problem that we tackle. But remembering this will keep us centered in that "fierce humility" described by Tippett.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Bumbling Quaker and God's Virtuoso

Oh right, this is my blog! I almost forgot. That's how insane work has been lately. But then the first half of the first semester is always the busiest time of the academic year...

Still, I wouldn't miss my annual gig as the token Quaker on campus for anything. Every year about this time in September, Campus Ministry sponsors World Religions Day and invites pastors and lay members of various religious denominations to represent their respective faith traditions at a sort of religion fair held from 11:30 to 1:30 -- the two-hour slot when lunch traffic passes through the center of the campus. I think today was my 4th year representing the Religious Society of Friends. As is my wont, I filled my half of the display table with past issues of Friends Journal and Peaceworks that passers-by were welcome to take. I also brought some books near and dear to my heart, such as Faith and Practice, Quaker Spirituality, and that whimsical opuscule The Quaker Way. Pink Dandelion's
The Quakers --A Very Short History figured in the mix as well this time.

Does it ever happen to you, gentle reader, to see a girl and to say to yourself, She looks like a Susan? Well, the quintessentially clean-cut young man in the white shirt and tie with whom I shared a table today just looked like a Justin. A member of a local evangelical church, he's a student in his senior year on our campus where he also leads a weekly Bible study group. Energetic, earnest, and amiable, Justin also radiates an unwavering certainty in the Truth of his convictions. His unabashed declarations towered over my humble, groping explanations. We were definitely the odd couple of the religion fair this year.

No surprise, of course, that the first question Justin asked me was about the place of the Bible in Quaker faith. I sure wish that one of those bad Quakers from the Bad Quaker Bible Blog had been there to answer that one in my place! Still, I did as well as I could, explaining that Friends revere the Bible and find it to be a source of great inspiration and guidance. I said that during silent meeting for worship a verse from one of the Gospels often pops into my mind and I meditate on it and sometimes give vocal ministry on its message. I noted that many Quakers also read and contemplate the holy books of other faith traditions, such as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita. And of course I quoted Robert Barclay who said that Scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself." I said that traditionally Friends have held the Spirit to be the supreme authority, and I remembered the words of the George Fox Song: "...for the Truth is more holy than the Book, said he."

Prior to asking his question, Justin had been listening closely as I answered questions posed by a student as part of her class assignment. I had been telling her about "the still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) and about how Quakers believe in turning down the noise and quieting the mind so as to hear the voice of God in our heart. Justin launched into a virtuoso--but most amiable-- refutation of my "Truth is more holy than the Book" doctrine, quoting from both the old and new parts of said Book and duly citing chapter and verse. (How does one memorize all those chapter and verse numbers?) Passages about the deceitfulness of the heart and the depravity of man came cascading, and the admonition that Scripture alone can teach us the Truth.... He trounced me soundly, I must admit.

I asked about those Bible passages that speak of God's wrath, saying that I did not believe in a wrathful God and that I think those passages reflect the fact that human beings did the writing of Scripture, injecting their own (mis)understandings of God's nature, determined by the times they lived in and the events they experienced. Justin replied that those passages remind us of things we prefer not to think about and that they express just how much God abhors sin and evil. He had a valid point. Never did he say that God abhors the sinner. On the contrary, he spoke of God's graciousness and mercy available to us through faith in Jesus.I believe that Justin indeed possesses what he professes.

Listening to him brought back memories of a time filled with certainty, when security emanated not so much from Bible verses as from catechism questions and Church doctrine ably taught in parochial school and "from the altar." A bygone time...but one that leaves no wistfulness behind.

And I thought how concrete, how rock-solid was all that he said...and how airy and undefined my explanations must have sounded! How much more substance a seeker would take away from a conversation with Justin! But then, how does one explain what it's like to sit in the silence and breathe in the Spirit? How do you describe the sudden burst of joy when the heart recognizes the voice of the Master and Teacher?

Why didn't I remember the verse from the Song of Solomon?
Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.
The heart is not deceitful nor is it deceived at meeting for worship. The heart when stilled has perfect pitch.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I recently discovered that I can download mp3 versions of some of my favorite old, old songs and listen to them wherever I like on my Sony Zen Stone.

So...I know I'm really dating myself, but here are two of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard...

"Marieke," by Jacques Brel

Unfortunately, my number 2 song, "The Last Time I Saw Her Face" by Gordon Lightfoot, doesn't seem to be available on YouTube sung by its creator. (Glen Campbell's interpretation is OK, but just not the same). So here's another Lightfoot song that ties for 2nd place, "Softly..."

Alas, as the Québécois song writer Michel Rivard sings:

Je n'aime pas la nostalgie
C'est une maîtresse inassouvie
aux yeux trop bleus.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Celebrating my birthday, a weight on my shoulders

Actually, I was at my 6am Body Pump class doing squats with 12 kg (26.5 lb) resting on my trapezius muscles. Even just a couple of years ago I would never have imagined that I'd enjoy a cardio/weight lifting class so much. Hey, what better way to start off the first day of the rest of your life?

Of course a good many of the loved ones who used to help me celebrate my birthday are gone now. I miss my mom especially. My two sons are both suddenly out of the house (one of them on the road), but I got phone calls from them. I left the house before my husband got up and could wish me happy birthday, but he called me at work during the day.

And then I must thank God for the loved ones who have come more recently into my life and who made my birthday special: cyberpals in Finland and Australia, and a colleague who took me out to lunch.

As you get older you learn to appreciate the quality rather than the quantity!