Wednesday, June 27, 2012

pnwqwtc: contemplating grace, part 1

I shared about my experience at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference in a post last week. I got to be one of the plenary speakers, so I'm going to post in three parts what I said, and a somewhat expanded version of what I wanted to say but for which I didn't have time. The topic I was given was "Contemplating Grace," as a section of the overall conference theme "Living in the Life & Power: Inviting, Contemplating & Enacting Grace." My overall desire was to help us think about the concept of grace a little bit--what does it mean to us intuitively? What baggage do we carry around this word? What did the biblical authors mean by it? Why and how would we go about "contemplating" grace, and what would this do in the world? I started off with some background information about myself and my intuitive understanding of what grace is--and is NOT. Then I went into a word study of the Hebrew and Greek terms for grace, and I finished off with some scientific (and some quasi-scientific) research on mindfulness meditation and similar topics as a little window into what it might do in the world when we "hold someone in the Light" or spend time contemplating grace in various ways.

Today I'll post the first section on my experiential understanding of grace.

Our topic for this morning is “Contemplating Grace,” and as you might imagine, I’ve been “contemplating grace” for several months leading up to this conference, mulling over what the Spirit is forming in my heart and mind to bring to you this morning. Now for me, “contemplating” pretty much necessarily includes a good deal of study—asking questions, researching, reading, discussing—and then chewing on all those things, looking for the nuggets of truth that rise to the surface (to mix a few metaphors there). So one of my first thoughts was, “What exactly do we mean by ‘grace’?” We kind of throw this word around, and it has several meanings in English, if you think about it—it’s a verb, it’s a noun, it can mean saying “grace” before a meal or a dancer who moves with grace or, more to the point here, a specific saving act of the Christian God or something to do with the notions of leniency and forgiveness. Another question came to me: “How and why would we contemplate grace?” A flood of further questions flowed from there. Do we just sit around thinking about nice things? How is the phase of “contemplating grace” different from inviting it or enacting it? As Friends, what is our understanding of grace, and how does our form of contemplation help or hinder us in the process of contemplating grace?

So this morning I’m going to start by tackling what we mean by “grace,” then add in the contemplative part. We’re going to look at everyday grace as I’ve noticed it in my life, then some word studies from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and then we’ll look at some recent research on contemplative topics. Finally, we’ll finish with some thoughts about what all this means for me personally and for us as a community of Friends.

I want to start by sharing a little bit about myself and the forms of grace I encounter each day. I grew up a Quaker in Northwest Yearly Meeting and have found the grace of a family and home here. That doesn’t mean that everything is easy or pleasant here, but that I have a sense of connection and love, of rootedness and joy in the best of times, and at times a painful sense of disagreement with those I love and a difficult pull between wanting to please and wanting to have integrity about the truth I sense. In addition to this spiritual family, I’ve also built a literal family here in the Northwest. Here’s a picture of my family—Joel and I have been married almost 11 years, and that’s a grace in itself, since I come from a family of divorced parents and since relationships are never easy. I am so grateful for the grace of a life partner who’s just as stubborn as I, who will never give up on me, and who will wrestle through the hard times right alongside me. We have two boys—E is 5 and K is 18 months. I experience grace through each of them so often. K is a little love. He gives excellent hugs, throwing his little arms around virtually anyone’s neck and giving them a long, solid squeeze. I see people light up every day from the love he shares with abandon, and I desire to be that kind of person, too. E sees things going on around him and wants to help. We saw a homeless person last year and E wanted to know what we were going to do to help. We had a conversation about it, and eventually we decided to host a lemonade stand to raise money for a homeless shelter in town.

I see these small graces in the lives of those I’m closest to, though I often feel like it’s difficult to extend grace to myself, because I have high expectations for myself regarding living with integrity. But more on that later. So I have these glimpses of grace in my life and kind of an intuitive understanding of the concept of “grace” that incorporates beauty, extending more to others than is required and a gratefulness that I get to see these things and participate in them. But this isn’t a deep enough answer to me about what we really mean when we talk about “grace,” especially in a religious context. In one way, “grace” from God seems like a loaded concept, reminding us that we NEED grace (or reminding us that those who try to convince us of this theology SAY we need grace), that the world isn’t perfect, that I “sin” (whatever that is)—sometimes it feels like this sort of resigned God who is sitting around, sighing, saying, “OK, I’ll forgive you again. Here’s some more grace, since you obviously need it.” I guess what I’m saying is that when I look at the grace I see in the lives of those around me compared to my archetypal understanding of “grace” in a religious setting, I get two rather different pictures.

The problem with the way we often talk about grace in Christianity is that it almost feels like we first have to feel guilt and shame in order to receive grace. The problem with that is that grace is a free gift. I don't have to do ANYTHING--even feel guilty--in order to receive it. It's just offered to me. It’s just so abundantly above and beyond anything I can ever feel like I deserve that it feels like grace regardless of whether I feel guilty or ashamed.

The problem comes in because we think that in order to understand God’s grace, we have to think of ourselves as utterly depraved. I have a really hard time with the concept of complete human depravity. I don’t think it’s in the Bible. Yes, we’re all “sinners,” in that we all choose to walk away from God at various points in our lives (OK, every day, if you're anything like me), but I don’t think we’re at heart completely evil. It seems like Friends have generally had a fairly optimistic view of human nature: there is that of God in each of us—we’re created in the image of God. God speaks to and through each person. Everyone has the chance to respond to God.

When I was at a Reformed seminary I just could never get on board with this idea of complete human depravity, and I realized this optimism isn’t necessarily common to all Christians.  But I feel like we still have a tendency to get stuck there in this idea that we’re so evil that God had to come save us—or worse, that Jesus the Son had to come save us from God, the angry child-abusing capricious Father-deity who was willing to watch his own son die. We heap guilt on ourselves, but this distances us from God in an unhealthy way. Why should I be grateful for the grace of this God? This isn’t grace. It’s a fear-tactic. It’s holding something scary over our heads until we buckle under the pressure of our own depravity and plead with him to not be thrown in a lake of fire.  This is not the kind of grace we see in the Bible, if we really look.

The overarching theme of the Bible pictures a God who comes to people again and again to build relationship. People draw together as a community, struggling to figure out what it looks like to live in right relationship with God and each other. They make laws to try to codify what the perfect community would look like, but that doesn’t work so well. They notice that the really important part of faith is breaking down the systems (that always seem to crop up) that benefit the powerful by taking advantage of the poor or disadvantaged. Over and over again we see, starting with the law of Moses, that people are instructed to do what is right by the lowest in their society: the widows, the orphans, the foreigners. This is how their commitment to their faith is to be measured.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3: a word study on the Greek and Hebrew terms for "grace" and some of the scientific research that relates to the topic of "contemplating grace."

Friday, June 22, 2012

biking with kids: the next level

Last week we went to the next level in our biking set-up: we got a "tag-along bike" or "trailer bike." E is 5-and-a-half and he LOVES it! He was getting kind of big for our Burley double trailer, especially next to his 18-month-old brother. Plus, they're really heavy! We had an REI dividend burning a hole in our pockets so we sprung for the trailer bike you see below. E tried it out and was immediately hooked. Now he asks every day if we're going to be able to go anywhere on the bike. (The next thing we need to do is find some child-sized rain pants, I suppose. On Tuesday we got caught in the rain and he was soaked! I tried to convince him it was an adventure, but he didn't buy it.)

I'm not sure that the people who make the trailer bikes would officially suggest this, but we attached our Burley trailer to the trailer bike, so we have quite the train going down the road now! (I've seen other people do this, too.) It's actually made it a little easier to bike because E's weight isn't in the trailer. I suppose the extra wheel helps, and I'm pretty sure his pedaling actually helps a little bit. He can coast if he wants to, but when he pedals on hills I can tell he's pedaling. We don't go places as fast yet, because I'm making sure he's comfortable on the bike and isn't going to knock us over by leaning too far one way or the other. But I think soon we'll be comfortable enough to go at a normal speed. I can now cart around three kids, which I did the other day when we picked up my niece from Kindergarten. I assume I can also get more groceries now without overloading the trailer.

The hardest thing about this set-up is turning. I have to slow way down and make wide turns, and I have to make sure not to curb-check the trailer, since it's far enough back that it's a little bit hard to judge where the wheels are going to be once they get there. I assume this will get better with practice, so for now I just take it really slowly and it's been fine. Hills are also really difficult. I have to make sure to shift down with plenty of time or else all the momentum starts pulling us back too much!

My only criticism about this trailer bike is that it's kind of difficult to switch from one bike to another. It's not impossible but it takes a bit of effort to get it on properly. Once it's on it works very well, however.

If you're interested, check out this page about raising up biker-kids. You can see a trailer bike in action in a video. There's also a helpful video about teaching kids to ride a bike. (We've been using the push-bike method by just taking the pedals and training wheels off E's bike. He's getting the hang of how it feels to balance, and I'm pretty sure he'll be riding his own bike within the next month or two.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

pacific northwest quaker women's theology conference 2012, part 1

This last week I went to the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference. It's a conference that happens every two years and brings together Quaker women from all over the Northwest (and beyond) and from the different Yearly Meetings and unaffiliated meetings in the area. In this post I'm going to tell you a few of my reflections from the conference and copy the really beautifully-written epistle that came out of our 4 days together. I had the chance to be one of the plenary speakers, so in future posts I'll write about what I shared with the group. I'll actually write an expanded version, because I had about 25 minutes to share and at least twice that much material (as usual)!

I am so grateful I had the chance to attend this conference. I've been wanting to go for the last several years but it hadn't worked out, so finally I got to go this year. The goal of the conference is to bring women together from different communities of Friends to build relationships and share about our faith journeys through narrative theology. I actually love spending time with Friends from various traditions, and as you know if you've followed my blog, I love theology. So this was right up my alley.

One thing that was fabulous for me personally was the space to sleep, pray, exercise, eat and participate in conversations without interruption by two little ones! My boys are great, but it was amazingly nice and restful to have a few days without them at a retreat center (Menucha) surrounded by women I enjoyed spending time with. My friend Darla and I went running almost every day (the last day we finally gave ourselves enough time to make our goal of finding the end of the Women's Forum Trail--kind of a good metaphorical end to our week--and we got muddy up to about mid-calf) and I practiced yoga with a few others under the direction of an experienced yoga-teacher-Friend, Ellen.

I also found it stimulating and encouraging to find Friends with whom my heart was in resonance from several other yearly meetings and unaffiliated meetings. I will treasure these friendships, and I'm excited to see where they go in terms of drawing us together as Friends. I hope we can start working together better on things we all care about, and that maybe we can start doing a bit more inter-visitation.

I went to Marge Abbott's workshop on prophetic ministry, which was excellent. I am so grateful that God is working in so many of us to bring truth to our communities through our own voices and talents. Prophetic ministry is a lonely business, and though most of us didn't have others there in that workshop from our own meetings, it's encouraging to know one another is out there, listening and attempting to follow through with action as led.

One woman I will not soon forget is Carol Urner. She came as another of the plenary speakers, and she's an octogenarian from Whittier Friends in California. She spoke about some of her experiences and ministries, and her main point was that we should "say 'yes' to God, even when we don't know where that will lead us." This, of course, is what we all strive to do, but she spoke with amazing passion that can only come from decades of putting this advice into practice. When I'm in my 80s I hope to have at least half the passion and stories of faithfulness that she has!

There were many other wonderful women and great events, but I think that's enough for now. I'll copy the epistle below so you can read of the communal experience we shared.

Epistle of the 2012
Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference
June 13-17, 2012
Corbett, Oregon
Greetings to Friends everywhere. 
Grace permeated our days and wove the variegated fibers of our lives together into a tapestry of light and love much like the quilts that surrounded us in our meeting space at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. We gathered on June 13, 2012, at the Menucha Conference Center above the Columbia River near Corbett, Oregon, around the theme of Inviting, Contemplating, and Enacting Grace. Prior to the conference each participant wrote a short essay in response to the theme. The conversation among us began as we read each other’s papers online and throughout our time together.  We came with differing experiences among Friends and other faith traditions, some excited, others tentative about what we would hear, and feel, and do together. We came yearning for community, a place to feel at home. We came knowing we would be challenged to listen deeply, to learn to open and stretch, hoping the effort would yield deeper understanding and add new patterns and textures to our tapestry of grace as we were woven together.

Thursday morning we received a message from Ashley Wilcox on Inviting Grace.  Ashley opened with her admission of love for the Apostle Paul. Drawing from Acts 9 she showed us that sometimes we invite grace through doing the completely wrong thing.  We can also invite grace into our lives by accepting and giving loving acts and living words. Darla Samuelson taught us how to use specific disciplines to create a space for grace to touch the pain of shame that is common in human experience.

Friday morning Cherice Bock led us through a contemplation of grace through a word study.  She asked the provocative question, “Do we have to feel guilty to receive grace?” In answer to her own question, she proposed that grace is an undeserved gift with no strings attached. Cherice concluded that grace is active, social, and enduring. On Sunday morning we were gathered together for a final hour of worship in which Nancy Thomas brought us the challenge to carry gratitude with us in response to God’s grace.
As stewards of grace when we extend grace to others we receive grace into our own lives and are further called to extend grace in this world. Christine Hall continued by saying that in contemplating grace we are swept up in a love that connects us to God, one another, creation, and divine mystery.  She finished with a quote from Thomas Merton stating that through contemplation we “see through the illusion of our separateness.”    
Saturday, responding to the theme Enacting Grace, Carol Urner challenged us to say “yes” to leadings even when we do not know where our “yes” will lead us.   In that “yes” there is a river of light that will flow through us and sustain us.  Elenita Bales followed and reminded us that that the word “enact” contains “act.”  She encouraged us to develop a rhythm of faithfulness in speaking the truths that emerge from our souls, and to risk vulnerability that we may become a channel of change.  Quoting historic Quaker Ann Wilson, Elenita asked, “What wilt thou do in the end?” 
Afternoon workshops presented a variety of ways we can nourish our lives and create an opening for grace. In Writing as Spiritual Practice we explored several ways to begin and be faithful to our own spiritual writing.  A workshop on the Bible revealed that in spite of feelings about Scripture, ranging from anger through love, the group had an interesting and respectful discussion.  In a session entitled Speaking Holy Boldness participants considered viewpoints and experiences that made clear that prophetic witness is alive and well in our yearly meetings.  Another group shared the different practices, such as movement, meditation, prayer, and visualization they use to hold others in the Light.  In a session entitled The Hard Stuff women from different yearly meetings responded to questions that had been submitted in writing earlier. Participants engaged in respectful discussion that acknowledged our differences while encouraging understanding and acceptance.  One workshop focused on listening and care committees and offered guidelines and tools on how to support others through suffering. Judy Maurer shared her experiences and reflections on teaching, listening, worshipping, and working on social justice issues in Russia. Christine Hall introduced Way of the Spirit, an opportunity to engage in contemplative study through a new program in the Pacific Northwest. 

Evening activities provided opportunities to further be woven together in our tapestry of community. Thursday evening Roena Oesting, dressed and speaking as Elizabeth Fry, recounted major events from “Betsy’s” life as written in her journals.  We expressed gratitude for the way Elizabeth Fry’s work in prisons started a pattern of prison reform work among Friends that continues today. On Early Friday evening we listened to the experiences of those who attended the FWCC Sixth World Conference of Friends in Kenya. Their exchanges were fruitful, rich and full, though sometimes difficult. As we heard their stories we could sense that there, too, they were held by grace. Later, we danced, sang, played Hearts fiercely, worked on a HUGE puzzle, and created art.  All these allowed for new openings into one another’s hearts and connections through joyful exchanges. 

Throughout the conference threads of conversations at meals, home groups, over the puzzle, or on hikes further wove us together in beauty and grace. It was an amazing gift to sit at a meal and turn to a stranger and feel no awkwardness. On Sunday morning we were gathered together for a final hour of worship in which Nancy Thomas brought us the challenge to carry gratitude with us in response to God’s grace.  We came here to be ourselves and left affirmed in our appreciation for and joy in the deepening cross-yearly meeting friendship; that is grace.  Borrowing a sentiment from Carol Urner, we have to finish, but we have not yet begun.