Friday, March 31, 2006

God & human suffering

For systematic theology this week we read "God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross" by Douglas John Hall. I thought it was an excellent book (although I didn't get to read ALL of it, but I would have if I had been physically able to!). Hall emphasizes the fact that suffering does exist, that God doesn't encourage it, but that suffering does in a way help us to grow.

As my precept (small group class) leader wisely stated, his theory works well for those of us in the "first world" because it reminds us of the reality of suffering and our need to admit it and live in it, but not so well for "two-thirds world" people. Hall's point isn't that we should tolerate and stay in our suffering, but the conclusions he draws of our need to face into the reality of suffering speak more to the condition of "first world" avoidance of suffering but continue to experience emotional/psychic/spiritual suffering, than to those who undergo physical suffering on a regular basis.

Hall brings up the important point that in more developed countries today, we tend to ignore suffering and to believe (in a modernist sort of way) that all suffering can and will be eventually overcome by technology. Sometimes we have to live with suffering right now, but that's not as it should be because we should be able to figure out how to get rid of that pain. But Hall reminds us that not all stories used to have a happy ending. In Hebrew Scripture and in Greek tragedy, lament and tragic endings were an important part of life that needed to be expressed and dealt wtih. Now we tend to ignore the fact that we're suffering.

This is easy to do. I don't "suffer" on a regular basis: I get enough food, I have plenty of clothes, I don't have much money but I have enough for what I need and for a few extras here and there. I have the luxury of being in school, taking the time to be trained academically, to sit around thinking all the time. I will inevitably endure suffering as people I know die, and I've experienced emotional suffering in the divorce of my parents and other broken relationships. Sometimes I suffer from being disconnected from the natural world too long and need to get some sun.

I also suffer from lack of community, which I think is a huge one in American culture. I have a great family and network of friends at home, and I'm beginning to develop one here, but it's not the same organic, interdependent community people lived in for centuries. (Of course both ways have their pros and cons, but that's another post for another day...) There is a definite sense of our independence becoming chains of isolation.

These are the kinds of things middle class Americans generally suffer, I think. Two things strike me about this: 1) as Christians, are we really following Jesus if we're not suffering? God doesn't invite suffering on us, but says it will occur if we're being disciples of Christ; 2) although these things don't feel like they can even compare to others' suffering, it is still suffering and I agree with Hall that it would be better if we could admit it as such, learn from it, and be able to empathize with others when they suffer.

Second thought first: Hall says that by denying suffering we are repressing those feelings inside us, therefore numbing us to pain in ourselves and others. If we're not able to recognize our own suffering we can't recognize it in others and relate to them. We also look for someone to villify, because we need a distraction--we need to see how bad someone else is so that we forget about our own shortcomings (hence the Iraq war???). So acknowleding our own suffering not only helps us become more whole people, but helps us build stronger and more empathetic communities, even with our enemies.

First thought: OK, so we aren't supposed to invite suffering--Hall is very clear that Christianity isn't masochistic. But we aren't supposed to shun it, either. Instead we're to listen to God, do what we hear, and be willing to suffer the consequences out of joy for being part of God's plan. This will automatically anger those in power, hence persecution and suffering, but it ultimately shows up the evil of unjust social institutions, etc. and allows the world to witness the transformative power of God in our lives.

For me the idea of suffering is something I've been thinking about a lot for several years. Why does the American church not suffer? Is that a positive thing--because we've created a government that is more fair than ones that persecute religions? Or is it because we're afraid to suffer and aren't willing to radically follow God's will, so we don't rock the boat enough to spark persecution?

I wonder this especially about Quakers. I don't remember if I wrote this on another blog posting earlier, but I often think about the fact that Quakers are generally seen by American culture as a great religion. Now we feel like we have to live up to that reputation, and so we're bound by our desire for popularity. Instead, I think we should wonder and really seek out what it is that God is calling us to as a community, and do that--even if it's unpopular. Let God first, and history, be the judge of whether it was a good idea or not.

I'm challenged to step out more in faith for action--as I've been kind of preoccupied with in the last few days' postings, I suppose. What does it mean in my life that faith is a verb, not a noun--that it's a lifestyle not a possession? How can I act out my faith even now, in the midst of an ultra-Christian community? I think the biggest thing I'm being called to lately is spaciousness...trusting that everything that needs to get done will get done, but I need to hang out with God alone more often. I can't expect to know what God's calling me to if I don't intentionally listen...

This means suffering in the form of giving up my own control of my schedule and fears about not having time to get enough done, setting aside my own priorities to follow God. Blogging helps with that process--it helps me contemplate what I'm learning and gives me a virtual community to share it with, but I also need the times of silent meditation.

Are there things you're feeling drawn to that would require a certain amount of suffering on your part?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

2/3 of the semester blues

Today...I'm wondering what in the world I'm doing in school. It seems to be a recurring theme about 9-10 weeks into each semester. So I have now new break-through thoughts to share, and all I'm doing is trying to memorize Hebrew.

But since I haven't gotten to responding to many of your comments for a while I'll focus on that, and hopefully be a little more inspired tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Today I was reading a book about Matthew, called "The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew" by Ulrich Luz. One part I was reading talks about true faith being characterized by understanding--over and over throughout the gospels Jesus says, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," basically meaning that those to whom the Spirit opens up Jesus' words will understand. So faith is about hearing and understanding, but Luz says, "understanding is not just an intellectual act." It's not enough just to hear the truth and understand it intellectually. It's not enough just to think something's a good idea. Instead, true faith shows that it understands by acting on its knowledge.

I think this is really true. It made me think of learning new things, and how I can understand them as I learn them but then completely forget them. It isn't until I have to do something with that learning that I know whether or not understood it fully. For example, learning Hebrew. I understand the lectures as they are given, it makes sense. But then when I go home and try to do the homework I have to check the book over and over to figure it all out again. I've understood, but it hasn't become a part of my life, of who I am. I currently can't form a Niphal (a Hebrew verb form) participle and show its differences from a Niphal perfect, and until I can I haven't truly understood the Niphal paradigm.

It's the same with faith. I think nonviolent resolution to conflict is the best way. I talk about it a lot. I support groups that work on nonviolence. But how much do I actually DO to work for nonviolent resolution to conflicts?

Luz also says of Matthew, "Faith is mingled in doubt....Faith is expressed in prayer. Prayer is a cry for God's help, at once encompassing trust and desperation. Faith, for Matthew, is not simply a permanent possession...." Here he is talking about Peter's attempt to walk on water with Jesus in Matthew 14. Peter has the courage to attempt this crazy thing, he steps out of the boat, he walks a few steps--and then he freaks out. Suddenly he realizes what he's doing, that this is crazy, that it's impossible to walk on water, and he starts to sink. But he cries out, "Save me, Lord!"

I like this depiction of faith. It's kind of scary, because it's not the nice little neatly packaged "salvation" that sounds so easy--say a prayer and you're in--but instead it's a daily, moment-by-moment struggle to stay focused on God. There's no assurance that at any moment I might not start to sink. But there is assurance that I can cry out to God in my moments of doubt--and this is what faith is all about. It's about living out the things we're called to, even when they're scary and crazy, and being willing to admit our doubt and fear.

I want to be the kind of person who hears and understands--truly understands, by putting my faith into practice. I want to be the kind of person who responds with honest prayers of desperation and doubt. I want to listen well--which we as Quakers definitely try to do--and then go out and act, continuing to listen all the way.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

neither protestant or catholic

Yesterday I wrote about the liberation theology of Gutierrez, and I finished that today then read portions of the Vatican II documents for my church history class. We are reading "Apostolate of the Laity" and "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy."

In many ways I really appreciate Catholicism. There's something to be said for a united "catholic" church, and wouldn't it be easier if one person could tell us what God was saying to the world? I appreciate that Catholicism in the last fifty years or so has produced a huge number of liberation and feminist theologians, and that the Catholic church has struggled to lovingly fit those perspectives into its tradition (less so the feminist position, but that's another story). I appreciate the thought of continuing a tradition that's been handed down for almost two thousand years. It lends it a weightiness that can't come from a single lifetime. I appreciate the willingness in the Vatican II documents to take a fresh look at the traditions, be willing to let go of outdated ones that don't have to do with faith directly, and stand their ground on ones they find important. I can definitely respect that, and I think other denominations could learn much from this kind of maturity (not least Quakerism, perhaps).

At the same time, it's odd to me that liberation theology can come out of such a religion. In the "Apostolate of the Laity," there is all this emphasis on how everyone is unified in the body of the Church, everyone is equal, special favor should be shown to the poor and the marginalized--and all this is great. It says that it is the Christian's duty to look out for the lowly of society and to do works of mercy and charity out of the overflowing of the love of God in our lives. This I can agree with.

But then it gets into things about how it is only the responsibility of the priests to administer Christ to the world in the form of the Eucharist, and that this is the most important way Christians can come into contact with God in the world. And if Catholics want to be part of associations for doing good, that's excellent, but they have to be under the authority of the church hierarchy. They have to be doing only those things approved by the church hierarchy. And the goal of all of this is to bring people in to the church in order to receive the sacraments, which are their only way to get to God.

How did liberation theology come out of this context, I wonder? How can people talk about the equality of all, and at the same time continue believing in and enforcing a hierarchy between people and God? Their documents say expressly that the poor and marginalized have something important to teach the church--and yet they are on the lowest rung of the Catholic ladder, not just society's. And yet, the Catholic church is supporting this movement and encouraging liberation theology.

Plus, the more I learn about classic Protestant theology the more I find Quakerism really has a lot in common with Catholics (and especially Anabaptists, of course). Protestants generally emphasize that it is faith, not our works, that save us. I agree--it is faith that leads us to God, and nothing we do can cause God to offer us grace. But at the same time, if we are only confessing with our mouth that we believe this stuff, and not acting out of the spirit of love, joy, peace, etc., it's worthless!

Recently in one of my classes I learned that in John, the noun for "faith" is never used. Instead, John uses the verb for "faith," meaning faith isn't something, a possession or acquisition. Instead it is something you do. It takes action and life. Protestants would say yes, you do the action of choosing to believe. Here I'm more in line with the Catholics, who emphasize the need to act out our faith in love for our neighbors and enemies, for the marginalized, and love is not just a feeling but an active living-out. It is in this way, say Catholics, Anabaptists and Quakers, that love we love God.

Monday, March 27, 2006

liberation theology: unity not uniformity

In my church history class we've made it to the twentieth century. Now, there are many things not to be proud of in twentieth century church history, but there are some to be proud of as well. One of those is liberation theology. We're not reading much for my theology class (although apparently next semester for theology we'll have profs who are more interested in liberation theology, which is nice), but at least we're reading some in church history. This week we're reading the introduction to Gustavo Gutierrez's "A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation."

I really like his perspective on liberation theology. He's talking about balancing the themes of love and liberation, freedom for all people, with the admonition to remain focused on the fact that it is from the teaching of Christ--and therefore the Bible and the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures--out of which this doctrine has arisen. I'm glad (I think I'm glad, anyway...) it's not just Quakers that struggle with retaining this balance. It seems like so many Friends fall off this tight-rope one direction or the other so easily. But it is from the overwhelming power of liberation through Life-which-has-overcome in the life and teaching of Jesus that the power of our doctrine of peace and justice gets its meaning. This is where the early Quakers got the doctrine from, and it's the spring out of which I attempt to live in as just and peaceful a manner as I can.

This does not mean, however, that we all have to use the same language to describe what we're doing, and that's something else I appreciate about Gutierrez's piece that we're reading. He suggests that theology needs to be created out of the context in which the people who practice it are embedded. So when Christianity was brought to Latin America and church leaders attempted to cause it to continue in the form which had developed in its European setting, it became empty--a bunch of disconnected ideas with no meaning in their Latin American context. Until those in Latin America began to make Christian theology their own, to see the strong emphasis in the Christian message for the poor and marginalized, until they saw their own situation and lifted their own voices to feel and share this message, it was meaningless for that group of cultures.

Now they are speaking a prophetic word to the world, a word that says, "Listen! Hear God through the disenfranchised." This is the gospel message, in their own language, a message that is for the whole world but again must not be applied directly to every other context. Instead it must be molded to the context which receives it, while the truth of the message still remains intact. This is where the problem lies, because how do we know we're being true to the message unless we speak the same "language" (and I'm not really talking about Spanish here)?

Gutierrez says, "Authentic universality does not consist in speaking precisely the same language but rather in achieving a full understanding within the setting of each language." It's not that we all have to speak and act exactly the same way--this is uniformity. But instead we are called to take the time to understand one another, and see the Light of God in one another, and to allow that Light to inform how we live in our own context. This is true unity, a universality that allows for diversity and truth.

One of my favorite singer/songwriters, David Wilcox (who I've quoted on here before), has a song about listening for understanding. When he explained it in a concert (and on his Live Songs and Stories CD) he said that this unity is like having a disagreement with someone you love: if you take the time to listen, sometimes you get so far into their perspective that you can hardly remember what your own argument was! He says he loves it when that happens--it's like a figure-ground picture. "Same dots, same data, different picture!"

Kinda' like the blind men and the elephant...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

thoughts about CPTers' rescue

It's been a few days since this happened so probably most of you know by now that three of the Christian Peacemaker Teams members who were kidnapped last November in Iraq were rescued on Thursday. (The fourth, Tom Fox, was found dead a couple weeks ago.) The three men were rescued by a Multi-National Force, made up, it sounds like, mainly of armed forces from their home countries of the UK and Canada.

I'm incredibly grateful that they were rescued, that they are alive, that they seem to have been treated well in captivity, and that the MNF who rescued them honored CPT's peace stance by not using violence in the rescue operation. You can read more about this on CPT's website, where there are links to news articles and statements from the men who were captured and from CPT.

Apparently the CPTers are being accused of not showing gratitude for their rescue to the army personnel who released them. I think that's a hard balance, because although I'm sure they are grateful to be free, they and CPT asked repeatedly for the armed forces not to be involved in this situation. So I appreciate the statement they issued:

I do not believe that a lasting peace is achieved by armed force but I pay tribute to [the soldiers] courage and thank those who played a part in my rescue.... There's a real sense in which you are interviewing the wrong person. It's the ordinary people of Iraq you should be talking to, the people who have suffered so much over many years and still await the stable and just society they deserve.

Who's working for the release of all those Iraqis who are being detained illegally without charge by the same Multi-National Forces? Are the armed forces continuing to honor the work of CPT as they continue the Iraqi occupation in order to make it less likely that someone would want to capture Westerners?

Nonviolent resolution of conflict is so difficult. It seems so impractical. And yet, these men were released by armed forces in a nonviolent way. The army was challenged to think of a different way to go in and rescue these men than their default of violence, and I think the fact that it was successful says a lot about what's possible with nonviolence. What if in every situation the "army" (or whatever it would be called) would sit down and think about how they might be able to solve the situation other than through the use of force?

Most Christians would say, I think, that most violence is not justifiable and it should only be used as a last resort. But when do we know that it's the last resort? How many nonviolent options have actually been tried in each circumstance? What if we had sent spies into Iraq and taught people about nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience instead of invading their country with weapons? What if we had encouraged and empowered those same people who are leaders of paramilitary factions in Iraq to use nonviolent methods to overthrow the unjust government which was oppressing them? What if the people of Iraq had been given tools to come together and work on their freedom together and to create their own peaceful way?

Perhaps it would have seemingly taken longer. Perhaps lots of innocent people would have died. Perhaps they would have created a new government over which Western governments had less power.

And perhaps it would have taken less time, because this war has already lasted three years and the end is still not in sight. And perhaps innocent people would have died, but their blood would not be on our heads, and their deaths would have been seen as martyrdoms to encourage solidarity and resolve in the hearts of those left behind. And perhaps people should be free to create the form of government that will work best for them, and not be controlled by outside forces that don't take the time to understand their culture...and besides, wouldn't they be more likely to look on our country with favor if we had helped them achieve their own freedom while acknowledging their personhood, rather than not even keeping an accurate count of how many Iraqis die in this conflict every day?

I believe CPT is working to do all this. They have had 120 volunteers in Iraq since the war started, according to their website. With those 120 volunteers they have achieved the release of many illegally detained Iraqis, raised awareness about the abuses going on in Abu Ghraib and other facilities, stayed in the country when almost all other humanitarian aid agencies have left due to danger, and helped form a Muslim Peacemaker Team based on Islam.

What could they do if they had as many individuals involved and committed to the cause of nonviolent conflict resolution as the armed forces have individuals committed to violent conflict resolution? What could CPT do if it had even half, or a quarter of the number involved in the army? Isn't it easier to successfully and lastingly solve a conflict with love than with hate?

Pictures are: 1) Harmeet Sooden & James Loney, 2) Norman Kember, 3) Tom Fox. From CPT website,

Friday, March 24, 2006


Today in my systematic theology precept (small group class) we discussed divine Providence, which inevitably (at least from God's perspective--ha!) led to a discussion of predestination. So I've been thinking about predestination and wondering what the official Quaker view is on the matter.

Now, admittedly I haven't read Barclay's Apology all the way through, and I haven't even read the parts I've read for about 6 years, so I don't know for sure if Barclay addresses this issue, but I just found the Apology online and did a search for the world "predistination" and neither of the two places it showed up did it really outline his position, as far as I could tell. I'm not sure if there's a Quaker doctrine on predistination, although I think Quakers are generally not really excited about predestination.

So what's the big deal with predestination? The major question is, does God know ahead of time what everyone will do and what will happen in all of history? And there are tons of subsequent questions. If God knows what will happen, do humans have any free will to choose their actions, or is the fact that God knows the future limiting us to act in the way God foreknows? If not, then is God really omniscient and can God have everything under control, headed toward a specific goal, as the doctrine of Providence says God is doing? And even if we don't think about the doctrine of Providence, if God doesn't know what's going to happen, who's in control and where's the meaning in life? If God foreknows what will happen, is God causing that to happen, or just knowing, and is there a difference?

If God knows what will happen, why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people, good things happen to people who are not so nice, and allow natural disasters? If God knows what will happen and uses it all for good, does that mean that when people do things that aren't good they are doing the will of God, and if so can they really be held accountable for it?

There are also questions of salvation through faith or works. If we assume a Christian pespective (which I'm sure not all Quakers will do comfortably but bear with me), does God offer salvation to all people? If so, whose fault is it that some accept it and some do not? Is it people's fault for not recognizing God in their lives? Or is it God's fault for not presenting God's self in a way they will accept, when God knows full well that they will not accept God from the experiences they're given? Does God create some people knowing they will not accept God? Why does God even create them in that case? And if God doesn't know who will end up choosing God or not, is God bound to time as we are, or is God able to hide things from God's self until the time comes to know fully, or what? And if we're all presented with the ability to be "saved," and we have to choose it, doesn't that mean that our faith--our own human action--is what saves us rather than the grace of God? (Most Protestants have a huge problem with this part.)

Put in Quaker words, if everyone has the Light of God within, a piece of themselves that can connect with God and others on a spiritual level, then why do some respond ot it and others try to stifle it? If everyone has the Light of God within but some are taught to pay attention to that and nurture it and others are taught the opposite, whose fault is it if someone doesn't respond to that God-spark? The individual's, because they have God's presence right there inside; the community who raised them, for not teaching them better; or God, for not making God's self known in an understandable way?

I don't have any answers for all this, except to say that somehow, I believe that God does have knowledge of what's going to happen, but this knowledge doesn't mean that God causes us to do things. Somehow we still have free will. Somehow God presents God's self to us in a way that each of us can understand if we choose to, and this choosing has to do with the Spirit guiding us to understand as well as our own willingness to be guided by the Spirit. So we do have to take action in accepting God's Light as our inner guide, but God also has freely extended that to us without our deserving it. God is moving the entire universe toward relationship with God, and we have the choice to participate in that or not. God's will will be done, however, whether we cooperate or not.

So that's my stab at this Quaker's doctrine of predestination, and I suppose I could come up with proof-texts from the Bible to support these views, but there has been enough of that in the history of the doctrine of predestination to make anyone sick, so I won't put you through that. Instead hopefully we can allow the Spirit to sift the truth and falsehood for us in each of our beliefs and help us understand this matter more clearly.

Or, more likely, this is just part of the beautiful, paradoxical mystery of our present God that we will never understand...but I think we are to die trying.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

resisting as existing

I was reading for systematic theology, and again this week what stood out to me this week was from our book on Jonathan Edwards by Sang Hyun Lee. This week we're talking about the doctrine of divine "Providence"--I didn't even know people use the word "Providence" anymore in the twenty-first century, but I guess there's a whole doctrine about it. The Christian doctrine of Providence basically says that God is working in everything that goes on in the universe in order to bring about a good end, namely, in order to fulfill the covenant of grace begun with humanity (which seems kind of anthropocentric, but that's the doctrine anyway). This brings up a lot of questions, and maybe I'll focus on some of them a different day, but for now I'll just mention them: there's the ever-present "theodicy" question--if God is working for good, why is there so much evil? And if God is working to bring about a certain end, do humans actually have any freedom to choose their own actions? And more questions flow from these lines of thinking.

But what stood out to me was something I read Edwards' struggle with these issues. He was attempting to reformulate the idea of "substance" from Aristotle's idea of "forms," which is basically an archetypal form of perfection and beauty underlying the imperfect things we see and experience. Edwards says instead that substance is getting down to the solid part of things (which he calls "atom" although now we know there are smaller things than atoms)--so you get down to this solid part, where nothing can be divided from it any longer, and that thing-which-cannot-be-divided is "solidity." He says since it can't be divided it's perpetually in the action of resisting division, and it is this resistance to division which defines existence.

Therefore existence is essentially relational, because one can only resist if there's something else, something other, to resist. He says this solidity is God, because God is infinitely indivisible, active and relational. (He explains this, but I don't want to go into the details here, just suffice it to say he has some pretty good arguments.) An important distinction here is that everything solid isn't God exactly (as in pantheism), but that God is the substance that sustains everything. It is God's act of resisting division and destruction that causes existence to continue. This is how God is "Providence," in that God sustains everything and must be present and active, working for the continued existence of everything, in order for anything to exist.

So I thought this was a really interesting thought, and I thought of implications which I'm not sure if Edwards would think followed at all, but it sparked these thoughts anyway. And I'm going to set aside modern physics and chemistry all that, ignore the questions of whether there actually is anything solid and indivisible and not just loads of space between infinitesimal quarks and whatever smaller atomic pieces there are, because I don't know enough about all that to speak intelligently about it, and because for the sake of this thought process I'm going to assume there is something eventually, however small, that is solid and indivisible.

Here's my thought: if existence if the act of resisting destruction and division--basically the act of resisting falling into chaos, does this say anything about the way we should live our lives? Does it extrapolate to a relatively macroscopic level, where because our very atoms are resisting division, we also should live out this resistance in our lives? What would this look like?

I think what Jesus calls us to, what Donald Kraybill and others call the "upside down Kingdom," where the last are first and the first are last, the greatest is the one who serves, no one can enter the Kingdom except as a little child, where we foolishly love people, even our enemies, where we forgive people as many times as they ask it, this is the act of resistance to which our "atoms" call us. This is the acting out of our solidarity with others, our refusal to be separated--divided--by race, class, gender, nation, or culture. This is the sense of substance and solidity which is the paradoxical kernel of truth that can keep our world from spinning into the non-existent divisiveness of chaos and war, fear, hatred, and judgment without mercy which would (and does) threaten the very fabric of our delicately woven world of spacious atoms and microscopic solidity.

But to resist the obvious--what seems easy, what seems solid--the easy way out of hatred and "eye for an eye" revenge, to resist this and see that our solidity, our substance, comes from solidarity and relationship with the Living God who holds all things together and works for good, this is what existence is all about.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

the kingdom of God is within y'all

I was in class today (class title: Theologies of the Gospel Evangelists, translation: the theologies of those who wrote and edited Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas), and we're currently focusing on Luke.

My professor said something I had learned before but forgotten, whcih I thought was important and might help us as Quakers as we think about the "Inner Light." He reminded us that in Luke 17:21 when it says "the Kingdom of God is within you," the Greek for "you" is plural, which of course we can't tell in modern English. What does that say about our faith, I started wondering?

In our culture where we imagine ourselves to be so autonomous, where we think we can get by on our own, or if we're religious, I can get by just me and God, it's hard to imagine what it could mean that "the Kingdom of God is within y'all," as my professor put it. This is an idea that we really started losing in our culture's urbanization and industrialism: living in a city, there's no need to know anyone, and unless you think about it you don't always recognize how much you depend on other people. This cultural pattern had a spiritual effect, and so churches became more individualistic as well: faith became a personal choice, asking Jesus into my heart, or I can believe whatever I want to believe because it's my own business and doesn't affect anyone else. It's a private matter, relegated to the "private sphere" along with family and my real self, where no one else is allowed to interfere.

Quakers do this, too. Often we come to meeting, whether programmed or unprogrammed, sit there for an hour or so, say hello to the people around us and listen respectfully to what others say during worship but pretty much focus on ourselves and our own relationship with God, and then go home. We've nourished our Inner Light, we've done our duty, let's get on with life. (OK, so no one would put it that way and perhaps that's an exaggeration, but I think it shows the kind of attitude many Quakers show even if they would say they act differently.)

I confess I am guilty of this at times. Sometimes I just want to sit in meeting in silence and not have to listen to someone share about something that doesn't pertain to me, or if I'm at a programmed service I don't want to sing such-and-such a song because I don't like the melody, or the theology, or whatever it happens to be. But I sit there and do my duty like a good Friend, I smile at those around me and say hello, and then I go home.

But what then is the point of gathering together? Why have Quakers traditionally seen it as so important to be part of a community of faith? If the Inner Light is sufficient to guide me where I need to go, if the Kingdom of God is within me, what's the point of a community?

I'm not sure where the early Friends got the idea of the Inner Light, although probably it's a conglomerate of John 1 where Jesus is referred to as the Light shining in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it, which Light/Word/Life was present in the beginning with God and was God, and then several passages in John, Luke and Matthew where the Kingdom of God is referred to as being present in the believer. I don't think George Fox or any of the early Friends knew Greek so they may not have picked up on the plural "you," although they spoke King James English so it may have been more distinct to them what was singular and plural, I don't want to look it up right now.

But even though the early Friends talked about an Inner Light, they also stressed the importance of community. They knew the power of God resides in a gathering of people who are faithfully listening to God together and challenging themselves and one another to action. The knew the Kingdom of God is present in the gathered community, not only in the individual.

So I'm challenged by this idea to push away all my American enculturation in this area and to meditate on what it means that the Kingdom of God is present in "y'all." I suppose one could think of it as Luke saying the Kingdom is present in everyone, so you all as individuals have the Kingdom in you, but in that case he could have written you in the singular, so that you would know he was talking to you specifically and as an individual. But instead he wrote "y'all." To me this means the Kingdom of God is present in people acting out of faithful attentiveness to God's "good news" in their midst. I know the idea of "good news" has been hijacked by some who call themselves Christians to just mean "the good news that we get to go to heaven," but Jesus said in Luke 4:18-19 that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to release the oppressed, to make the blind see, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and he invited those around him to join him in these things.

This is the good news of the Kingdom of God that the early Friends preached and lived. It seems like our autonomy, our idea of the Kingdom of God being in ME, has often kept us of late from being able to live these things out effectively together.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

longing for the spring

It's almost the first day of spring and I'm incredibly ready for it to be here. I pulled my bike out again for the first time since fall the other day--I was so excited! Here in New Jersey it's dry and still kind of cold, sunny but still brown and dead-looking. It's much different from what I'm used to in Oregon, where it's gray and rainy about now, but the grass is green and leaves are probably already coming on, and the evergreens are of course still green. In Oregon I wouldn't be riding a bike yet, but I also wouldn't still feel like everything's dead--there would be early spring flowers and leaves everywhere (although they may have died last week with their freak snow storm!).

I have seen a few flowers here already, though! On the bike path there was a strip of daffodils and I stopped and picked some to bring home, and already it feels more like spring. But I was riding my bike to meeting today past three fields of brown stubble with trees brown and barren and wondering if spring is ever going to get here.

There's something incredible about the waiting, though, and I've been trying to enjoy the anticipation and longing, and seeing what it has to teach me. It's a ruminating time, a time of seeming dormancy, a calm before the explosion of new life that will soon come. I notice myself waiting and longing with an aching sense of desire for regeneration in myself, not just in the landscape.

I'm not sure why the year begins on January 1--I think it should begin with spring, because that's when things really become new. I'm much more interested in New Year's resolutions now, and I might actually keep them for a while--like getting exercise, because I can ride a bike!

I never used to really appreciate the seasons much, just kind of experienced them as they came. But now I notice them (maybe because there are actually four seasons here), and the rhythm of the seasons reminds me of the embodied person that I am, who needs change, new life, death, times of waiting, times of energy, harvest and planting and fallowness.

In Hebrew we translated Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the other day (which was nice because it's very repetetive so it wasn't very hard!), and it reminded me of these seasons and the patient cycle of it all. So here's Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (Cherice's version) to meditate on as we await the spring.

For everything there is an appointed time, and a season for each pleasure:
a season for bearing, and a season for dying;
a season for planting, and a season for uprooting plants;
a season for killing, and a season for healing;
a season for breaking down, and a season for building up;
a season for weeping, and a season for laughing;
a season for lamenting, and a season for skipping joyfully;
a season for casting stones, and a season for gathering stones together;
a season for embracing, and a season for being distant from embracing;
a season for seeking, and a season for losing;
a season for keeping, and a season for throwing away;
a season for rending, and a season for sewing together;
a season for being silent, and a season for speaking;
a season for love, and a season for hate;
a season for battle, and a season for peace.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

God imagining God's self to us

Paul made a good point in his comment to my last post: what do I mean by "God imagining God's self to us," and where did I get that from? I kind of just tacked that onto the end there and didn't explain very well (because I gave myself a blogging time limit and it was about to expire! =) So I'll see if I can explain it here.

I think "God imagining God's self to us" is a bona fide Cherice-ism, but it does have some influence from other theologians and the Bible. At first I thought of us imagining what God is like, but then realized if we're doing that, we're just making God into who we want him/her to be. But if God is imagining God's self to us, we can get a picture or metaphor for who God is that comes from God. It may be difficult to discern when it's me imagining and when God is imagining to me, but hopefully with practice and trust we can figure it out at least some of the time.

One of the ways many people think of the "Image of God" humans are said to have is that our creativity is the way we are like God. It is a way we connect with God, and a gift of God's character that only humans (at least of creatures of the Earth, as far as we can discern) have been given. I even read a book last term that suggested that creativity is God (written by a former Mennonite, now a philosopher of religion) called "In the Beginning...Creativity," by Gordon Kaufman. It was an interesting hypothesis, and I agree with him that God is the essence of creativity, but God is also personal, an actual being--not just a vague concept of creativity. But his idea is helpful: through the medium of creativity we can know God better, and our creativity is an important way that we are like God.

This week in systematic theology we read part of Sang Hyung Lee's book "The Theology of Jonathon Edwards." I didn't really expect to be a big Jonathon Edwards fan, after reading "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in high school American history class, but apparently that's not his normal theology (that was more influenced by George Whitefield and the revivalist preachers--it was Edwards getting on the bandwagon of popular religion). Anyway, what we read for this week had to do with Edwards' idea of creation. It would take too long to explain how he got to this point, so I won't bore you with a recapitulation of Lee's recapitulation of Edwards...but suffice it to say that Edwards thinks that because God's essence is about relationship and self-communication, one of the major reasons that God created the universe was to communicate God's whole self in time and space.

What this has to do with the topic of God imagining God's self to us is that Edwards sees God doing this self-communication as a repetition in time which happens through the human imagination. God obviously does not repeat God's self in actuality--God is not creating another God. But what God is doing is revealing God's self to us, and through our perception of that in our minds, through our remembrance of God's revelation in our imaginations, God is repeated in time and space and able to communicate God's self only through the perception of intelligent beings that are other-than-God. God's actual self is still the same and another actual God doesn't come into being, but the idea of God is KNOWN, and it is this knowing which is part of who God is in the world.

So that's one basis for God imagining God's self to us. God "needs" people to perceive God through our minds and imaginations in order for God's self to be communicated (at least God set up a system that requires people, although there probably could have been other ways for this to happen). If people only perceive God in the forms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is God able to fully communicate the fullness of who God is to us?

Another foundation for this idea is imagery in the Bible. There are plenty of examples of God utilizing people's imaginations in order to impart truths to them they probably would not have thought of or grasped otherwise. The parables of Jesus are a good example of this: Jesus often prefaced his parables in Matthew, Mark and Luke by saying, "The Kingdom of God/Heaven is like..." Many times an explanation for the parable's meaning is not given, and the hearer is forced to think about--to imagine--how the Kingdom of God could be like a man with two sons, a woman who lost her coin, a shepherd, etc. How do these metaphors help us see a bigger picture of who God is?

In these parables Jesus shows us examples of people similar to the experience of those who would be listening to him. Are we still supposed to use those examples only as we seek to understand God, or are we able to follow Jesus' example and see metaphors for God in the people and situations in our own culture? Might God continue to use our imaginations to show us who God is like that connects with our own experience?

Other examples from the Bible include those who had visions of God or God's word, like Isaiah seeing God in heaven and volunteering for the mission as God's mouthpiece to Israel, or God asking Abr(ah)am to count how many stars there were in the sky or sand in the sea and to imgaine that God would make his descendents as numerous as they; God telling Elijah that God was going to show God's self to him and Elijah imagining God was in the earthquake or wind or fire but God shows up in the still, small voice in Elijah's mind; God using the analogy of Hosea's marriage to Gomer to show Israel a metaphor for their relationship to God; and many other examples I won't go into now.

The Elijah story is important because Elijah tried to use his own imagination to guess what God was like, but God showed up in a way completely other than what he'd expected, but completely recognizable as God. This is good news because if we wait long enough, our own active imaginations will let go, and God can come through as God is.

As a modern-day example of this idea, the other day my husband told me about a vision he had where God showed him an image of centeredness that he wouldn't have thought of on his own. He tried to hijack the vision, trying to guide it or guess where it was going, but when he allowed God to imagine God's self for him he received a vision of God unlike his own imagination, although incorporating his own experiences and knowledge. This new idea of God was completely Other from himself and his own thoughts, and yet completely intimate and integrated with who he is as an individual.

So I think God uses our imaginations to help us understand more about who God is. Sometimes we get in the way and try to decide who God's going to be, but our imaginations can be an important tool to help us see God in new ways. I think it's important to be held accountable by the Bible and our communities to make sure the images we receive are consistent with God as revealed through history and to others, but at the same time, I think God shows us God's self in ways that are uniquely important for us specifically and don't necessarily fit very well into historical molds. This is not to say that God will be vastly different from the God present to others in history, but that the image we receive may be different from any we have ever heard of before (such as F/friends of mine who have received images of God as the Holy Goose, a guy in Converse, a cat, a butterfly, etc.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

secret life of bees

I finished reading the book "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd the other day.

Yesterday's post was kind of heavy, and I don't want to forget all that, but maybe sometimes being accountable to the responsibility left us by martyrs is following our passions and working for God's glory in every area we are involved in. That's why I tend to write posts about books I read and movies I see--because even these expereinces are "sacraments," places where God can and does speak to us and call us to transformation.

So about this book...

It's a story about a young girl coming-of-age, of course, as many books are. She lives in the South in the '60s. The story deals with spirituality, racism, grief and loss, joy and love. Lily, the main character, lost her mother when she was little and has only a few possessions left that belonged to her mother. One is a picture of the Black Madonna, and she is drawn to this picture--she doesn't know why. She knows it's strange, because Mary's supposed to be white, connoting purity and virginity. But this was her mother's. On the back her mother wrote the name of a town, and when Lily is forced to run away she heads for that town.

In the story she meets up with a group of African American women who keep bees, who teach Lily how to live and love and grieve and be honest and to connect with her spirituality.

It's an amazing book, and I've also read another one by Sue Monk Kidd called "Dance of the Dissident Daughter," which isn't a novel but tells her story and her thoughts as she found herself in a fundamentalist Christian environment and came to know God as her Mother, using feminine imagery and symbolism. I used that one as a source for a couple of papers I wrote last term.

Now, the "religion" the women in "The Secret Life of Bees" is not exactly "Christian," they're worshiping Mary. (One could say that's as Christian as Catholicism, but I think if you ask most Catholics they'll tell you they're not actually worshiping Mary, just praising her for being the mother of Christ. The women in the story are actually worshiping her.) I don't think we should worship other people, but at the same time, what are women supposed to do? Who are we to identify with?

I think what almost always happens in religion is that something becomes an idol. People start out with good intentions, taking out every idolotrous thing, focusing on God alone, trying to get back to the basics of truth and love of God. But then over time whatever it was they chose to do in order to follow God better becomes an idol. I think that's what has happened with the Christian idea of God, as I alluded to some in my post on the Trinity. We have this view of God as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, nothing more, nothing less. These are the ways we are allowed to picture God. Anything else has to fit into one of these categories or it's not "orthodox." (Even liberal Quakers are guilty of this to some degree, because by saying we can't define God and we can think of God however we want we've decided what people have to believe in order to be acceptable.)

But isn't that us deciding what God looks like? Isn't that us limiting God? Isn't that us making God fit our own image and not allowing God to knock our socks off by being something completely Other than what we could ever imagine?

It's a hard balance. I think we need common language to talk about God with, and imagery is helpful for us to grasp some piece of the relationality of this Other we're connected to. Having a common ground to speak about God is helpful because we need each other in order to understand God better. We can't just say God is whatever we want God to be. But we also need to be able to see God in new and creative ways or our faith has become dead and idolatrous.

This is something I'm passionate about, and I hope as we allow God to imagine God's self to us we can be challenged from a space of a love we can understand because it fits us personally, and because it allows our community to see the Light of God in a clearer fashion. Hopefully as we allow God to imagine God's self to us we can imagine ourselves being who God calls us to be and live that out in radical, transformative ways.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

quaker martyr

I'm finally home and done with my midterms after being gone for the weekend.

While hanging out with friends in Northampton, MA, my husband checked his email and learned about the death of Tom Fox, the member of Christian Peacemaker Teams who had been abducted with his coworkers in November. After all this time waiting and praying perhaps I should have been ready for this news, but of course there's always that glimmer of hope--maybe they'll change. Maybe they'll see the Light and respond to it positively. Maybe a miracle will happen...

We went to Northampton Friends Meeting and many people spoke about Tom, as I'm sure happened in many meetings around the world. One Friend stood and said, "Another Quaker martyr is not something we're looking for," and added something about the fact that we're proud of his willingness to stand for what he believed.

I agree--we don't really WANT more martyrs, but it got me thinking: what is martyrdom good for? I was also thinking about this a lot last semester as I studied early church history as well as the Radical Reformation. I've been thinking about the positives and negatives of martyrdom. Tom Fox's death brought it closer to home.

So what is martyrdom for? It's obviously bad in that a person has to die, and someone has to kill them. It's also bad because sometimes people kind of want to be martyred so they'll be remembered and seen as a saint--so it's bad if there are poor intentions.

I think it can also be good in some ways, although I don't think it is ever necessary. The goal is that people would stand up for what is right, and those acting unjustly would see the error of their ways and change, allowing the would-be martyr to live. The goal is that through the life and courage of a person convicted by the Spirit to live a just and truthful life, others will see that and be challenged, and come to God themselves.

But what good is someone's death, even for a good cause, if no one changes because of it? It's good in that the person who died lived their lives fully for God, and that can never be diminshed in importance.

At the same time, I believe each martyr that is added to our ranks adds a weight of responsibility on those of us still left. Are we going to sit around mourning our loss and then get on with our lives, or are we going to take on the responsibility the martyrs have left us and live fully into our callings to truth, justice and radical love?

Another Quaker martyr is not something we want, but it is something we have. How are you--how am I--going to live out the call Tom Fox felt to work for justice in this world? Are we going to let his death remain admirable but meaningless? Or are we going to let it be a challenge and a catalyst for transformation in our individual lives and in the Society of Friends?

Why are there so few people involved in Christian Peacemaker Teams and other organizations like it? Why do we still pay our taxes that support this war and drive our cars that create the need for this war? Why do we talk about peace and justice and continue living as we have?

Are we willing to allow ourselves to be challenged by this witness, this martyr, who through his death is holding us accountable to live out our beliefs or let our hearts be further hardened? What do you feel called to do in response?

I think if we allow ourselves to be challenged and transformed in this way, a miracle will have happened from this situation.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

more on revelation

(Ha, ha, say that title 10x fast and you'll probably get close to the truth... =)

OK, I said I'd talk about the Bible as revelation. This is a hard topic, one which has been the main source of division among Friends over the years, from what I can tell. So I don't expect a lot of you Quakes out there to agree with me necessarily, but here's my opinion.

To me, the Bible is a book that recounts the story of a particular community's experience with God across time. It isn't an easy book to read--there are things attributed to God that I wouldn't want my God to say or do. There are things which challenge me out of my complacency, things I don't want to follow because they're too hard. There are things that don't seem to make sense, and I wonder why they were incldued. There are contradictions. It is an incredibly patriarchal text. Much of its historical accuracy is still debated. We don't have the original manuscripts of ANY of the books in the Bible. Most books in the Bible were edited by several people before being handed down in their current form as "holy scripture" that can't be changed because it's the "word of God." The Hebrew Scriptures were not formed into a specific canon until about 90 CE (AD), and the Christian New Testament wasn't canonized until the mid-fourth century. The Bible as Protestants use it was not finalized until the sixteenth century, when the Reformers took out the Apocrypha from the Catholic Bible.

So why do so many people around the world, Jews and Christians, view many of these books as Holy Scripture, the word of God in written form (see quote from my last post)?

I have to walk a fine line here, because I do believe the Bible is incredibly important in helping us to know God, but I also think we can't take it literally, and that it is only a partial reflection of God's Word. The Bible isn't God. It's a witness to people's interaction with God over time, and it helps us to recognize what is and isn't God. But I think it's naive and sells ourselves short to think that the people who wrote down these things understood God completely accurately when we're not able to.

We can't take everything in it literally. For example, the creation story: first of all, there are two accounts of creation (Genesis 1 & 2); secondly, how would anyone have gotten such a story? Did God dictate it, or was it handed down from generation to generation? I think neither. But it is still a story which is helpful in showing us how God relates to us. It is a myth with spiritual power which God chooses to use to help us know God better. Another example: the stories of the Israelites taking over the Promised Land are recounted in Joshua and Judges, and sometimes the same city is taken twice in different ways. So which way was it? Obviously we can't take both literally (although some try!). And in the New Testament, Jesus is shown performing simliar miracles in different ways, or a different disciple makes the same comment in different Gospels, or that sort of thing. But the main idea is there in all the Gospels, and a similar picture of who Jesus was is painted by them all. There are accounts of his life, death and resurrection in all four, and all have him performing miracles and teaching people.

So to me, the Bible shows us important concepts about the character of God, and the way people have learned to interact with God over the course of history. The very fact that the Bible isn't an easy book draws me to it--these writers weren't trying to give us a sugar-coated God who was easy to understand and would just do whatever we wanted. No, this God has many faces. This God is confusing and scary at times, jealous, just, merciful, a still small voice, the one who created everything, the one who can part the waters of the Sea of Reeds and bring the downfall of Jerusalem. This God can become human and suffer, show us how to live, speak in parables so we can only catch a glimmer of the truth sparkling beneath the surface, bring people back to life spiritually and physically, and so many other things. If God was shown as a God who made sense and acted in ways that were predictable and understandable, what kind of God would that be? I am so much more drawn to a God who is hidden and mysterious, continuously being revealed and concealed, than to a god that was like me.

The Bible shows me a community of people who from ancient times have struggled and loved and lived and died, passionately pursuing understanding of this amazing God, learning and being angry and being in awe and fearing this God who loves them without reason.

As I read the Bible I also notice that God speaks to me in ways that I can't (or at least don't) hear elsewhere. I think for whatever reason God has chosen to use this text to speak to us, even with all its faults and human inconsistencies. In this text I can find the grounding to be able to better recognize God in other areas of my life. In this way I think the Bible is the word of God written, it is a word helping us hear God, it is a word without parallel (again, see quote from previous post). It is a witness of prophetic words spoken through the ages, it is a pastoral piece entreating us to see and follow God.

The only thing is, why do we feel like the Bible has to be closed? The Jewish Talmud is still an open text: it is still added to, and people still interact with it in a living way because they still believe God will talk to them in ways similar to the way God spoke to their ancestors. This makes much more sense to me. I know this gets a little scary for Christians--once you start saying the Bible could be added to, how do we know stuff wouldn't be added that was incorrect? Think about the history of the church--what if corrupt popes had added stuff? What if weird cults had included their own "revelations"? What if the Book of Mormon had been included?

I agree--it's kind of scary. But at the same time, why couldn't those same kinds of things have happened in the past? Were generations prior to Jesus so much more adept at keeping heresy out of their communities? I don't think so.

So I think what it comes down to is trust. Do we trust God to put things into the Bible that are true, in whatever sense God conceives of as "true"? Do we trust that God has the power to get the necessary stuff into the Bible and keep other stuff out?

I don't think we need to literally open up the Christian canon, because 1) that will never happen, and 2) I think the Bible has been formed as it is for a reason that only God can know. But I do think we need to be open to believing that God will still speak to us today, that we are still called to be God's prophets and apostles to the world. Otherwise Quakers waiting for a word from God in each meeting is ludicrous, unless we just sit around reading the Bible to one another. Perhaps we should do more of that (reading the Bible together), but at the same time, I think we should also trust ourselves enough to believe God will still speak through us just as God spoke to and through those in the stories and writings of the Bible.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


I'm working on a midterm paper for my systematic theology class about revelation, and we're supposed to say whether we agree or disagree with this statment from the Westminster Confessions of 1967 (it's part of the Presbyterian confessional statement):

The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith is nourished and regulated.

There's a lot in that! In some ways I find it helpful, in other ways I completely disagree. So I'm going to use my blog-time today to share with you some of my preliminary processing--but at least for today, I'll only focus on the first phrase. I'm going to use as my definition of revelation: "God's self-disclosure to humans, individually and collectively."

A couple burning questions come to mind. What does it mean by Jesus being the "one sufficient revelation"? And does it mean only Jesus in the flesh, or does it include Jesus who is still alive today?

If the statement means Jesus is the only revelation of God to the world, and that his life alone is sufficient for us to know God, and especially if it only means Jesus as he was in human form, then I disagree completely. Even if we come at this from a biblical standpoint it doesn't make sense: God revealed God's self to many people throughout the Bible before Jesus came, and after he left the earth God continued to reveal God's self to people.

Even during the life of Jesus people didn't recognize him as God most of the time, and he is recorded in all the Gospels as saying, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," meaning if their spiritual "ears" were open (which I think is what our interaction with the Holy Spirit looks like) then they could recognize he was from God. If not, even though he was here in the flesh people couldn't recognize him as God unless they were open to the Spirit.

From a non-biblical perspective, what about all those people who never get to read the Bible, or who were born before the Bible was formed, or who were born before Jesus? If Jesus is the only sufficient revelation of God to the world, how could anyone besides those present in the time of Jesus, living in Palestine, have ever encountered God? And yet, we know from experience that there is Someone speaking into all of us. We're able to recognize that Inner Light within ourselves and each other, if we allow our spiritual eyes and ears to be opened to and by the Spirit. This is revelation. This is where our spirits come into contact with a Spirit we can know and recognize, who remains hidden and mysterious but also fully known, and makes us known and hidden to one another. This could (and does) happen whether someone knows anything about the biblical Jesus or not.

So that might worry some Evangelical Friends, so now it's time to worry some liberal Friends... =)

If the Confessional statement means Jesus is the only revelation of God that is sufficient to do a specific work of God in the world, I think it might be closer to the truth. We have this kind of belief in our own Quaker history: "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition," were the words which George Fox heard which began Quakerism.

There is ONE.

Yes, maybe we can know Jesus without knowing that's his name. Yes, maybe we can be part of God's saving grace and reconciling, just, merciful, peaceful power without knowing it is somehow through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we are able to participate in this relationship with God. But I believe that through Jesus, God accomplished something of God's will on earth that couldn't have been accomplished by any of the rest of us going through the same exact motions. Because of Jesus we can be reconciled to God and know God in a way that we couldn't otherwise.

This gets a little fuzzy, however, because I also believe that people before Jesus' time were able to be in relationship with God. Obviously if we believe any part of the Bible, God was interacting with people and making God's self known to them in the Hebrew Scriptures. God's same character of a God who is interested in justice, mercy, grace, forgiveness, love and reconciliation is apparent in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) in powerful ways that tell us things about who God is that would be hard for us to know if we only had the New Testament. I guess this is because God is outside of time, and although God chooses to act and relate to us in time, God knows what's going to happen and presumably could use the redemptive, reconciling power that was going to be worked "later" (in time) for those in the "present" (the time before Jesus came).

I think that's enough for today. Maybe for the next few days I'll tackle the Bible, the Holy Spirit as a witness to Christ, and the question as to whether revelation is closed, or continues to be open.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Tonight we had a couple friends over and we half-watched the Oscars and half-played a not-so-rousing game of Settlers. I had only seen a few of the movies that were nominated for anything--one of which was Crash, and I'm glad it won some stuff. It's 11:00 here and our friends went home so I don't know who won best picture yet, but oh well.

Anyway, I thought it was really interesting how it seemed like they were going out of their way this year to remind themselves how great movies are, how they say so much about the human condition, how they speak truth about issues we're not willing to face as a society and push the envelope in ways that shape America positively. I don't know what I think about that. Yes, I think movies can be helpful, can give us information and thoughts to chew on, can open up worlds that we never knew existed, or worlds that don't exist that tell us something about ourselves.

But I especially liked John Stewart's line about all the women in Hollywood who are slaving away and working so hard at being beautiful for us all and yet still hardly have enough money to buy a dress that fully covers their breasts.... John Stewart's great. If we had a TV I'd watch The Daily Show, but we don't so I don't.

It's great when Hollywood uses its power and high profile to say something important, to bring to light important issues. And it's good when individual famous actors and musicians use their fame for something good. But it seemed tonight like they were really trying hard to convince themselves that they're doing something good for the world. Is it true? What do you all think?

I think in some ways they are doing something important, in that it's part of who we are as humans that we need stories. We need to be part of stories, we need to have stories that tell us who we are and call us to something more. Movies can do this sometimes, and I've written about two in the last couple of weeks that have affected me in deep ways. But at the same time, movies are often used by our society as ways to "escape." Do we need to "escape"? Or have we just convinced ourselves that we "deserve" to escape, to not have to think for a while, to have someone entertain us and create something beautiful before our eyes?

Would there be a better way for us to be involved in the human story? Are there better ways to let down and relax? Are we entitled to escape from the evils of the world? Are we entitled to only see the evils of the world in movies, where we can tell ourselves that it's not real?

As Quakers, how do we balance our simplicity beliefs with this entertainment-oriented culture? And do we join in with popular ways to "speak truth to power," or are there other more helpful ways to go about getting the world's attention than through Hollywood?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

the river why

One of my favorite authors is David James Duncan, a Northwesterner (I think he's from Washington state). I just finished reading "The River Why" a few days ago, and I've also read "The Brothers K" (novel) and "River Teeth" (short stories). Currently my husband and I are reading aloud "My Story as Told by Water," short stories that I think are autobiographical.

I really appreciate Duncan, first of all because his stories are set in the Northwest of the USA, which right now is especially great since I'm living in the Northeast and miss all the trees and mountains and space where there aren't people.... Duncan is also an excellent author. He creates characters of amazing depth. He makes me laugh, and sometimes I even laugh and cry simultaneously (like when we were flying home from England and we were reading a really sad part of "The Brothers K" [I was reading over my husband's shoulder], and we were sitting in the front row of coach, and there was a flight attendent sitting facing us, and we were reading a really sad part of the book and I was crying profusely and smiling through my tears sometimes. I think the flight attendent thought we were really strange. =)

Anyway, so Duncan writes about people who like fishing and baseball, two things I couldn't really care less about, but he connects these things with spirituality and intense seeking in such innovative and poignant ways that it draws me in even though I otherwise wouldn't read about fishing and baseball. Through these hobbies, which some of the characters love with passion akin to religion, we learn about the characters, their interrelationships with each other, and their inner hopes and struggles. OK, I'm not doing a very good job of explaining, but trust me, it's amazing stuff.

So they're set on the rivers and streams of Oregon and Washington, so I thought I'd post a picture of the Columbia River Gorge, which separates these two states, to show you the kind of amazing scenery we're talking about. (I didn't take this picture.) Pictured is the Columbia River from the Oregon side, and the building is Crown Point Lookout.

Here's an equally beautiful picture in words from "The River Why" to give you a taste, then you should go read it. The main character, Gus, is getting philosophical food for thought from his friend Titus.

"Fishermen should be the easiest of men to convince to commence the search for the soul, because fishing is nothing but the pursuit of the elusive. Fish invisible to laymen like me are visible to anglers like you by a hundred subtle signs. How can you be so sagacious and patient in seeking fish, and so hasty and thick as to write off your soul because you can't see it?"

Again his question hit me where I lived: I pictured rivers--December rivers, mist-shrouded and cold--and thigh deep in the long glides stood fishermen who'd arisen before dawn....There they stood in the first gray light, in rain, wind, snowfall or frost; silent, patient,casting and casting again, retrieving nothing yet never questioning the possibility of bright steelhead hidden beneath the green slicks; numb-fingered, empty-bellied, aching-backed they stood, hatted or hooded like rabbis or monks, grumbling but vigilant, willing to pay hard penance for the mere chance of a sudden, subtle strike. What was a fisherman but an untransmuted seeker? And how much longer must be the wait, how much greater the skill, how much more infinite the patience and intense the vigilance in the search for the gift men called the soul? "Titus," I said, "I've been walking around for years with my metaphysical fly stuck in my ear!"

So here are some queries for you:

1. What do you have infinite patience for, what are you willing to wait and suffer for, that is similar to Gus's fishing? Does this draw you closer to the Divine? Can you use it as a helpful metaphor for "fishing" for your soul?

2. How do you respond to the thought that we can have that same kind of patience, endurance and anticipation for seeking after our soul and whatever our soul's connected to in the spiritual realm?

3. Are you seeking God with the same infinite patience and sincere conviction that God is there that you would have if you were fishing for fish?

I'm not going to answer these questions now, but let you mull them over. Maybe I'll post my own thoughts tomorrow or maybe just leave them as queries to ponder. Feel free to post your own responses.

quaker map

Here's a fun thing I found on another Quaker blog: it's called Quaker Frappr and you put a little color-coded flag on a map, and the color means what branch of Friends you belong to. I had a hard time deciding what I kind of Quaker I was...or where I'm from, for that matter...

So far there are only Americans, so we'll see if we can get others on there! =)

Friday, March 03, 2006


Tonight we watched the movie "Brazil" (1985), which I saw in high school but that's getting to be a few years ago now...

Anyway, for those of you who are from my generation and may not have had a reason to have ever seen this surrealistic-sci-fi-classic film, it's really cool--although kind of depressing. I'd highly recommend it, but if you're going to watch it you should go watch it first and then finish reading this post, because it's the ending that I'm going to talk about. (That's my disclaimer, don't say I didn't warn you. =)

At first the main character is just going through a normal life, doing what he needs to in order to survive but not trying to be "successful," rich or famous or powerful or any of that--just trying to live like a good person within the system he finds himself in ("somewhere in the 20th century," which is the future in this case...). He's just trying to be your regular Joe, but then he accidentally gets mixed up in governmental bureaucracy, realizes how messed up the system is, takes on the system in his dreams and tries to figure out a way to at least get those he loves out of this destructive system somehow.

He fails. In the end, everyone he knows and loves has died (or become so much part of the system as to be unrecognizable), and he is taken in to be tortured until he'll be a docile part of the system again. (If you haven't seen the movie yet, don't judge it by this description--it doesn't really do it justice, because the movie is a brilliant surrealistic work complete with fanciful dreams, cynical humor and a lot of great commentary on society that I can't get into here or else you'd get bored reading about should just watch the movie!)

So the last scene shows the two evil bureaucrats bending over him, and they say they think he's gone too far beyond them, he's in his own place now...and he is--he's daydreaming about leaving all the cities and civilization with the woman he loves. He's gone crazy, but he's finally in a place where they can't touch him.

When the movie got over, at first I thought it was just depressing: they've destroyed him, there's no hope of society ever going in the right direction, according to the view of life depicted.

Then I thought about it some more. The whole movie is of course not supposed to be realistic--that's why it's surrealistic. To me the real point is to go somewhere that the system can't get to us--somewhere that is so intensely our own, our true reality and sense of truth, that "they" (whoever they is) can't take it from us. I wouldn't recommend going crazy to do so, or retreating to a place inside where you can ignore the problems of the world. I don't agree with the final analysis of this movie that that's the only way to escape the system.

But I do think they hit on an important concept here anyway. There is a beyond, there is a place where we can't be touched by the world, and I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he envisions the "Kingdom of God." That's one of my favorite things about reading about Jesus' ministry. It's not just a political scheme like people thought a Messiah would be about. It's not just a "pie in the sky by and by," either. It's a here-and-now Kingdom, where we so live into the truth of who we are--living out justice and what is right in the world--that "the world" cannot touch us. Sure, it can hurt our bodies, but it can't destroy our souls. (Quick note: I don't think the kind of total dualism that is often made of this is helpful either--I think our bodies are important and they help us connect with God and are part of ourselves.) We can be so intensely who we are that people are drawn to that--drawn to that of God in us, the Light within, the seed of truth that each of us carries. It's speaking truth to the world in such a way that it can't be ignored. It must be dealt with, either by acceptance or destruction.

For followers of this way, the end is often destruction of the body. The early Friends were willing to risk their lives to bring this just, peaceable Kingdom to the earth, to live it out in everything they did. They went to jail, they endured persecutions of all sorts from those around them, they risked their lives to bring the joy of this Kingdom to places like Boston where it wasn't wanted (Mary Dyer and others). They risked their children's comfort to follow this Kingdom, leaving the children at Reading Meeting the choice to either stay at home and wait until their parents returned, or live in the same Light as their parents and continue meeting together.

Quakerism isn't for the faint of heart. We are a prophetic people with a voice that cannot be quenched except in our death--and not even then! Look at how many Quakers there are around the world now because of our past witness.

This summer as I was at the World Gathering of Young Friends in Lancaster, England, we climbed Pendle Hill together, Friends from all over the world coming back to that place where George Fox had his vision of a great people to be gathered. It was beautiful (and I don't just mean the view) and challenging (and I don't just mean the hike). It seems like perhaps it's a chance for a turning point. Are we as Quakers going to sit on top of Pendle Hill, rejoicing in our successes and doing nothing more? Or are we going to allow our lives to be rekindled with this fighting fire of the present Kingdom and once again live as the Spirit calls us to live?

What is the Spirit calling us to now? Is it comfort and security? Is it going along with the system as much as necessary in order to not get into trouble? Is it turning a blind eye on the deadness of those around us and focusing inward on our own piece of truth? I don't think so. I think we are still called to action, there is still a great people to be gathered.

If we are faithful to the Spirit, I trust completely that people will be drawn to this work. But we don't do it for the numbers, or for the notoriety that comes with pesecution. We do it because it is what we are called to do. It is how we are most truly ourselves, it is how we shine our Inner Light, it is how we bring the Kingdom forth into the world. What does the Kingdom look like? Here's what Jesus said his mission was, and challenged us to do the same:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because I have been anointed
to bring good news to the poor.
I have been sent to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 2:18-19

In "Brazil," the character's dream-wings are shorn off by the charcter representing the system. I believe the Spirit offers us back those wings, and we can again learn to fly, together.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

sacramental life

Since I've been writing lately about other people's sacraments and liturgies, today I thought I'd comment briefly on the Quaker view of sacraments, from my perspective. I see from Quaker Blogwatch that others have been writing about sacraments lately too, but I haven't gotten to read them yet--I think it will be interesting to write my opinion first and then read other Quakers' thoughts on this matter.

The other day in church history class we were talking about the beginnings of the women's rights movement in the 19th century and Quaker women's place in that (like Sarah Grimke, who I blogged about a few days ago). Our professor said, "Did you notice Grimke never brings up the idea of administering the sacraments or ordination? Why do you think that is?" Everyone else gave kind of a blank stare of, "Oh yeah, I hadn't noticed but you're right. I wonder why that is..." So he said, "Well, that's because Quakers don't do sacraments."

I got to pipe up (as the already-designated Quaker expert in the room =) and say, "Well, Quakers don't do PHYSICAL sacraments," and he said yes, that's true. Someone else in the class asked, "What do you mean? How could you do them besides physically?" So I got to explain how Quakers think every moment is equally sacred because we're always in the presence of God, there aren't "special moments" when we're more closely connected to God than others. There might be moments when we're paying more attention, or when we feel more connected for one reason or another, but that doesn't make those moments more sacred.

For Quakers, our communal gathered silence is "communion," it is a sharing of life with the people present as well as the Spirit who speaks in and through us. It is a sharing in the body and life-blood of our present God, a way to partake of the Living Water after which we will never be thirsty again, and the Bread of Life which sustains us and meets our needs (John 4 & 6).

True baptism is that of the Spirit, and no amount of water can force that. The Spirit is welcome to baptize any of us at any time, but we don't presume to be able to cause that to happen. A moment to confess belief before God and others can be helpful, but being doused with water doesn't ensure our "salvation" any more than saying the words, "Jesus, please come into my heart." The point is to live a faithful life, in step with the Spirit at all times, allowing God to continually baptize us in the fellowship of communion with God's self and our spiritual community.

The point is to live a sacramental life, where we are aware each moment of the presence of this Spirit who we can know more and more, who teaches us adn guides us, who genuinely cares about us and wants what's best for us (even if we can't see how it's best at the time). It's a crazy idea--that God wants to hang out with us, that every moment is a moment in which we couldn't get any closer to the Spirit if we tried, that everything we do and say can be a sacrament shared with this amazing Being. It's a cool thought, isn't it? Gives a whole new dimension to life... Maybe that's what Fox was talking about, when the very colors seemed to have become more full of life. (I think that was Fox, somewhere in his Journal, but I don't have time to look it up for you'll have to find it yourself!)

Query: how have you experienced life as a sacrament today?

Here's a great song by Peter Mayer to get you in the mood for centering on this query:

When I was a boy each week, on Sunday we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest, He would read the Holy word
And consecrate the Holy Bread, And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is, Everything is Holy Now
Everything, Everything is Holy Now

When I was in Sunday school, We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two, Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad, That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track, ‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, everything, everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small, But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So, the challenging thing becomes, not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When Holy water was rare at best, it barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath, 'Cause I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there, Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down,
But I walk it with a reverent air, ‘Cause everything is Holy now

Read a questioning child’s face, and say that’s not a testament,
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come, and say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning outside I stood, And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush, And singing like a scripture verse,
It made me want to bow my head, I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then, Everything is Holy now,
It used to be a world half-there, heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air, ‘Cause everything is Holy now.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

ash wednesday

Of course, following yesterday's post, what else could today's title be?

Today I went to my first ever Ash Wednesday service where I got ashes on my forehead. (They're still there.) I've been thinking a lot today and yesterday about liturgy and why/whether it's important, and if it is, how it can be used well. I'm using this opportunity in a Presbyterian setting to learn more about liturgy--not too much, because I quickly feel claustrophibic, but it's good to at least experience it. I find things helpful and not so helpful about it, as I wrote some yesterday. It's both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness as Quakers that we don't practice any physical sacraments and we don't have a real liturgy. (Sure, we have silence and that becomes our liturgy, but still, anyone can stand up and speak from the silence and easily break that liturgy into a form that is no longer a form. Or they can stand up and share something that is so easy to hear that it still fits within the form, but that's another story for another day...)

I love--LOVE--the practice of sitting together and listening to God. I'm such a big Quaker nerd that I actually enjoy a difficult business meeting because we're forced to remember we're here to listen well to each other and God. I also love meetings for clearness, the space that we create voluntarily to invite others to journey with us through some of our most important decisions. These are some of my favorite communal aspects of Quakerism.

But liturgy and physical sacraments can draw a community together, too. I noticed that today as I was at the Ash Wednesday service. How often do we in meetings get the chance to corporately share our sense of intense grief that we are not always (or perhaps even often) the people we want to be? Perhaps someone shares in meeting that they want to work on being more loving, or they feel like they need to work on patience, or whatever it is. That's great! It's awesome that people can feel free to share those things, and that the gathered community can then meditate on their own shortcomings and be challenged to grow into better people with the one who spoke.

There's also something powerful about admitting as a community that we are not who we want to be. In the service today we read a collective "Litany of Penitence," and although Quakers don't use either of those words ("litany" or "penitence") in a positive way very often, hopefully you can bear with me and give our liturgical sisters and brothers the benefit of the doubt for a minute. Through this corporate prayer we confessed that we are not always loving toward God and neighbors, we are not very quick to forgive others, we don't listen well all the time, we are often prideful and hypocritical, we are self-indulgent, we often envy people with more material wealth than we have and run after temporal gain, we do not treat the earth as we should. The prayer asks for God to accept our repentance and restore us.

These are things we all feel, and I think in some instances it can be incredibly powerful to acknowledge as a group that we aren't perfect, to admit that we have work to do, to say before God and one another that we are still in need of healing and transformation. I don't know how such a thing could be incorporated into Quakerism and I'm not sure it should be, but I do think it's a beautiful thing about another tradition that I appreciate and can see God in.

The whole ashes thing was interesting as well, but I think because I haven't grown up in a liturgical tradition I don't know enough about the significance of having ashes in the form of a cross on my forehead, being carried around all day for the world to see. (It was also optional to have them put the ashes on your hand.) In some ways it's a good reminder of the transformation that should occur when we spend our lives in the presence of God: an ashen cross on the forehead makes others look at us differently. What are we doing that causes others to look at us differently in regular life? How would people know we're interested in following God on a normal day?

In other ways it feels like a sort of pious mark, to show that "I am holy because I attended an Ash Wednesday service today." Hopefully this is not how it is taken, or how it is meant by most people. But it definitely could be taken that way, and if I were in a culture as the early Friends were where everyone would be expected to have an ashen cross on their forehead today, I probably would not have gotten it, to prove that one could still follow God without going through this ritual.

But just because a ritual can be used badly doesn't mean it's inherently evil. It is good to "remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return" once in a while (which is what they said when they put the ash on my forehead). It's good to be humbled sometimes, to remember that my time here is short, that I can't do everything, that I'm not God. But it's definitely a strange tradition.