Saturday, October 24, 2009

Visiting Pendle Hill and Friends General Conference....

The weather has been seasonably unpredictable--cold and rainy, then sunny and hot, now rainy and warm--as I spent the past week traveling among Friends in the Philadelphia area. I left LA last Thursday to go to Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center near Philadelphia where Kathleen and I met 20 years ago. Last weekend I attended a meeting of the Pendle Hill board and took part in a restructuring process that reduced the size of the Board from 60 to 21 members. We had a good meeting and I bid farewell to the Board after serving on it for over 6 years. "Now let your servant go in peace" since PH is in good hands!

I spent the rest of the week working on the Brinton book and made good progress. I had lots of conversations with Friends who helped me move forward on this work. Joan Erickson, one of Brinton's daughter, joined me for lunch on Tuesday and we spent a couple of hours reminiscing about her parents.

I also had thoughtful conversations with various students and staff who helped me put the life of the Brintons in perspective. As a result, I was able to produce two articles about the development of Howard Brinton's theological thought.

I am now attending a meeting of the FGC Central Committee in New Windsor, MD, where I am a member of the Christian Interfaith Relations Committee. Yesterday I took part in a discussion about the role of CIRC in the World and National Council of Churches. Today I gave this report which sums up my work with SCCPWR over the past year. The CIRC committee (which is pictured here) responded so warmly and generously that I was deeply moved. Thank you, Friends, and thank you, Spirit, for your amazing grace!

Report on the Parliament of Religions
for the Christian Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference

I want to share with you about how the Holy Spirit has been at work in my life through the Parliament of the World's Religions. I have felt led by Spirit to do interfaith work ever since 9/11 and it has deeply enriched and empowered my life. In fact, this work has become my life.

Last year I had planned to Pendle Hill to write a book about the Brintons but Spirit had other plans. I had to stay in Santa Monica to take care of my beloved wife. While on this healing journey, I joined the steering committee of the local chapter of the Parliament of the World's Religions. I found this to be a diverse and enthusiastic group consisting of around 25 members: Bahais, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sufis, etc. There were clergy, professors, and spiritual leaders. I use the term “spiritual leaders” to distinguish them from religious leaders—those who work professionally for institutions and are part of a religious bureaucracy. Spiritual leaders work at the grass roots level and inspire and empower their communities through their enthusiasm and example.

The Parliament of the World Religions organizes mega global events every five years attracting 6,000-10,000 participants and major religious leaders, but it also organizes hundreds of local pre- and post-Parliament events. Most of this work is done by volunteers. These local events seem to me very Quakerly. In Kenya there was an event entitled “Peace and Reconciliation for Socioeconomic Stability in Kisumu.” In Oxford there was an event called “The Inner Voice of Silence: Interfaith, a Life-Transforming Experience.” In Santa Monica we organized an event called “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth” at the Sokka Gakkai Buddhist center. Over 150 people took part, including many members of Santa Monica Friends Meeting. One member led a workshop on the environment. Another brought a group of teens from our Friday night teen program.

I organized the youth program for this event and over 40 college and high school students took part. My goal was not only to engage young people in the interfaith movement, but also to empower them to assume leadership. Most of the workshops were led by youth. Some of our youth leaders also took part in the plenary program and shared inspiring messages about what interfaith work meant to them.

After this event, I was asked to organize a pre-Parliament event at the University of Southern California, which has made a major commitment to the interfaith movement and hopes to become a national center for interfaith studies. We organized an event on Gandhi and religious pluralism. There was a panel discussion in which two distinguished college professors and two gifted college students talked about the legacy of Gandhi. There eleven workshops on a wide variety of topics, ranging from community organizing to sacred drumming. I invited the AFSC to lead a workshop. Several members of my Meeting took part.

I have taken care to involve my Meeting in all my interfaith work. When I realized that I was becoming a “Public Friend” and was representing Quakerism in the LA area, I asked for a clearness committee to discern how best to follow this leading. My Meeting has supported my work financially as well as spiritually. Among other things, it has given me a grant of $900 to go to Australia. I am very grateful for my Meeting's involvement and support.
I now serve the local chapter of the Parliament in many capacities. I am their web designer, youth program coordinator and development officer. I serve on the executive Board as a vice president. I am also leading a workshop in Melbourne entitled “Listening with a Heart of Mercy.” My co-presenters include a Sufi active in Jewish/Muslim dialogue and a Jewish film-maker, who created the documentary “God and Allah Need to Talk.”

I am carrying this concern to Friends. I wrote an article about interfaith work for “Friends Journal.” I have not only given workshops at the FGC gathering and at Yearly Meetings, I am also inviting some of my Parliament interfaith friends to take part in a panel at a Quakerly Meeting session in Novembers. A Mormon, a Jew and Muslim active in interfaith work will be panelists. We are also integrating the youth into this program and hope to involve them in our interfaith youth events.

When I informed Australian Friends that I was coming to Melbourne for the Parliament, I was enthusiastically welcomed. I was invited to visit and speak to Friends in Sydney and Canberra, as well as Melbourne. I decided to extend my stay so that I could attend Australia YY, which will take place in Adelaide on Jan 3-9. My Meeting wrote a letter supporting my travels in the ministry and uniting with my concern for interfaith work. As a result, I feel that I am not doing this work alone, but with the full support of my beloved Meeting.

After I return from Australia, I plan to be involved in post-Parliament events that are taking place throughout the LA area almost monthly. I am especially excited about interfaith youth work. This year I am working with the South Coast Interfaith Council and the Parliament to organize three interfaith youth events: a homeless feeding event at my wife's former church, a Heal the Santa Monica Bay beach cleanup on Earth Day, and an interfaith tall ships sail in San Pedro harbor—our third annual sailing event. Through these activities we are creating a core group of youth people committed to interfaith work who will carry this work into the future. It is my hope that at some point Quaker youth will find their place in the interfaith movement.

I believe, as Howard Brinton did, that authentic Quaker work begins in our local meetings, in meeting for worship, where we listen deeply for what Spirit is calling us do do. If we are faithful to and in harmony with Spirit, way opens for us to do our part to transform the world. This is the goal of the interfaith movement—transforming ourselves and transforming the religious culture of the world so we can experience our unity and celebrate our diversity. I am inspired by what Hans Kung said at the first modern Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993: “There can be no peace without peace among the religions. There can be no peace among the religions without dialogue. There can be no dialogue without a common ethic.”

I am grateful to Spirit that I am being led to foster not only this dialogue but also something deeper—what Douglas Steere called “mutual irradiation.” “Mutual irradiation” is defined as a interfaith encounter in which “each is willing to expose [him or herself] with great openness to the inward message of the other, as well as to share its own experience, and to trust that whatever is the truth in each experience will irradiate and deepen the experience of the other.”. The Parliament's work truly is mutually irradiating since it consists not only of talk, but also of deep worship and “spiritual intimacy” conducted in myriad ways.

This year, because of the challenges in my life, I have grown closer to the interfaith community that ever before through our practice of prayer and worship. During this trying and painful period, my friends in the Parliament and in the interfaith community were there for me, praying for me and supporting me in ways too deep for words. Through their love and support I know now in my heart of hearts that God truly wants us to realize that we are all one family, and that the business of our lives is to help everyone to experience the love and peace that passeth understanding. May it be so with you and with every soul on this earth....

Yours in love and peace,
Anthony Manousos

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Simplicity and Peace

I was asked to speak about "simplicity and peace" for a spirituality group that meets at the Beverly Hilton every Tuesday morning. I had attended meetings of this group and found the participants to be delightful and interesting people--professionals who care deeply about spiritual growth. They call themselves the "Mastery Circle."

Here's the message I shared with the group. Or rather I shared the first half of this talk. It was much too long for my forty minute time slot, and too long for a single post, but if it's useful, read it. If not, have a simply wonderful day!

I wanted to talk about simplicity and peace because we live in a world which seems to be the antithesis of the simple and peaceful. Our society is growing increasingly complex, our lives are becoming increasingly complicated, and we seem to be moving further and further away from any state resembling peace.

I’d like to begin by leading us in a song you probably know called “Simple Gifts.”

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right

“Simple Gifts" was written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, in 1848. The Shakers were a religious sect that developed out of the Quakers thanks to a charismatic woman named Mother Ann Lee who lived in the 18th century. The Shakers and the Quakes both believed in the Inner Light, but the Shakers, unlike the Quakers, danced and were much more emotional in their religious expression. They also practiced celibacy. Which is the reason that they are hardly any Shakers left today.

Quakers today often sing the song “Simple Gifts.” We resonate with the way it equates simplicity and freedom. Simplicity means getting rid of all the clutter that stands between us and God. Freedom means not simply choosing to buy what we want, but to be so content inwardly we don’t need to buy anything. This inward contentment is true freedom.

The other thing I like about this song is that it equates the spiritual life not with scaling a mountain, but with going down into a valley. Climbing mountains can be us feel very important and proud—what a wise person I am! I’ve reached the highest level of spiritual attainment! This song says we find “love and delight” when we come down off our high horse and “find ourselves in the place just right.”

The “place just right” is found by being downwardly, not upwardly mobile. We find love and delight when we don’t see ourselves as higher or lower than anyone else. We aren’t ashamed to bow and bend—to be flexible and humble. “To turn, to turn will be our delight.” This turning means our life has become like a dance, and we circle around the Center—around God—like the dervishes and like the early Christian mystics, in a state of simple joy and ecstasy. This is how the Shakers worshipped, circling round and round, like children playing ring-a-round-the-rosy.

Incidentally, the tune of this Shaker song was stolen by a British Quaker named Sydney Carter. He wrote a song called “Lord of the Dance.” This song is very popular with Quakers and expresses our feelings about Jesus better than any other hymn I can think of.

Sydney Carter said: “Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.”

Carter regarded Jesus as a universal phenomenon, not simply a first century Jewish teacher/prophet/savior: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

I don’t know whether or not Carter was aware of the mystical tradition of dance described by Evelyn Underhill in her classic work Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Underhill talks about the Christian mystic Plotinus who described the spiritual life as a kind of choral dance with God as the conductor or dancing master (Corypheus in Greek): "We are like a choir who stand round the conductor but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move around the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One" (p. 233). In ancient Greece, choirs danced as well as sang.

The image of Christ as "Lord of the Dance" (Corypheus) is found in the apocryphal "Hymn of Jesus" that dates back to the early period of the Church. The Logos or Christ stands in a circle of disciples and says, "I am the Word who did play and dance all things." "Now answer to my dancing." "Understand by dancing what I do." Again, "Who danceth not knoweth not what is being done." "I would pipe, dance ye all!" and "All whose Nature is to dance, doth dance."
These two songs help us to understand something about the nature of inner peace. It comes from a place of simplicity and freedom and joy. Ultimately, it comes from being in harmony with out Creator and with Creation.

Many people don’t have a clue when you talk to them about inner peace. They find it impossible to sit alone in a room with the TV or radio shut off for even a few minutes. Most Americans are so addicted to stimuli, and afraid of silence, they can’t stand being anywhere without background music or sounds. That’s was true of me for much of my life. I grew up in a household where the TV was on constantly. We learned to talk and carry on other tasks with a soundtrack of commercials in the background. With such constant stimulation, it is no wonder that many young people become hyperactive and need drugs to calm them down.

Our society teaches us to look outwardly for validation and happiness. We go to college not to learn and to grow in knowledge and wisdom, but to get a ticket to a job or a career that will earn us money or make us feel worthy and respected. We often choose jobs based on how much it pays rather than how much psychological or spiritual fulfillment it provides. When we become stressed out, we go shopping. Or we go to a movie. Or if things get really bad, we pay someone to listen to us as we talk about ourselves and our problems.

We even pay people to give us tips about our spiritual life. This won’t be the case today. I am speaking for free! Or rather I am speaking in exchange for a bowl of oatmeal—what better way to compensate a Quaker for sharing his two cents worth of wisdom!

What I want to share with you today is how Quakers find peace in themselves and how they promote peace in the world through the practice of simplicity.

Quakers have probably the simplest form of worship possible. We gather together in an unadorned room and sit in silence. That’s it. There is no priest or pastor, no pre-arranged order of worship. We just sit and wait expectantly, trusting we will find what we need in the silence. Sometimes someone will feel led to stand and give a message. If that happens, we seek to listen with an open hearts and mind. If no one speaks, we may spend an entire hour in silence. That can be a very precious meeting.

I wish I could say that this simple form of worship never leads to conflict, but I must be honest and admit that people in Meeting sometimes get upset about the vocal ministry. When you allow people the freedom to get up and say what’s on their minds and hearts, there is always a risk they will say something that someone considers inappropriate. I once gave a message about the Iraq war that made a woman so angry she stormed out of meeting. Another man wrote me a nasty email calling me a knee-jerk liberal.

We Quakers are taught to see conflicts such as these as an opportunity for spiritual growth and reconciliation, so I asked our ministry and counsel committee if we could have a meeting for clearness to resolve this conflict. The man accepted and we sat together in silent worship and listened to each other in the presence of Friends and learned to appreciate our differences. We have become very good Friends as a result. The woman who stormed out of meeting refused to meet with me and she has stopped coming to our Meeting. She says we are “too political” and “not spiritual enough” for her. I suspect that wherever she goes, she will hear messages and words she doesn’t like and become angry and upset. She wants peace so badly she will probably never find it because she thinks that peacefulness means finding a place where everyone is quiet and where no one disagrees with you. True peacefulness comes when we accept others the way they are, when we are able to speak our truth and listen to other’s truth without becoming angry, and when we allow ourselves to be guided by Spirit, the “Lord of the Dance.”
Practicing peace and simplicity is not easy. Some people come to Quaker meeting and find it boring or incomprehensible, and they go where there is music, a sermon, and other forms of stimulation.

But sooner or later, if we want to find peace, we need to look within. We need to learn how to sit still and center down and experience what is going on inside us—the good, the bad, the terrifying, and, if we are patient, the deep peacefulness that comes when our thoughts and feelings settle down and we can discover the Light Within.

Silent worship is what drew me to the Quakers back in 1984. At the time, I had completed my Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers University and was finishing up a stint teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, but my life was in crisis. I had just gone through a painful divorce and my widowed mother was dying of emphysema. I went back to Princeton—my hometown—to help my mother and my kid sister during this difficult time.

My family situation was so complicated, so fraught with emotional turmoil, I felt helpless, so I asked God for assistance. Not long afterwards, an old friend of mine from graduate school showed up at my house and seemed to radiate calmness. He had changed drastically from the hyper person I knew from grad school so I asked him what had caused this change in his life. He told me about Quakerism and how it had helped him to find inner peace. Since I needed some peacefulness in my life, I decided to give Quakers a try.

Princeton Quakers meet in an old 18th century meetinghouse located in a beautiful, peaceful wooded area near Stony Brook where I used to go fishing as a kid. I entered this ancient meetinghouse and sat down on a bench in front of a stone fireplace with forty or so others. We soon settled into deep silence. It was the most profound spiritual experience I had ever had, and it was just what I needed. I realized I didn’t need a preacher, or music, or words of any kind to have a relationship with the Divine. It was enough to sit in silence and experience the calm, peaceful Presence that lies deep within us. Quakers call this by many names: the Inner Light, the Inward Christ, the Seed. But there is really no word that can begin to describe what this experience is like. Paul perhaps said it best when he called it “the peace that passeth understanding.”

This is where Quaker peacemaking begins, in our way of worship. From this method of worship springs our Quaker commitment to peace, justice, equality and simplicity.

Simplicity is both an inward and outward experience. We achieve outward simplicity by eliminating the excess and clutter in our lives—things that distract us from Truth. That might be big things—like a job we hate or no longer find rewarding, or an expensive house that no longer fits our needs—or it might be small things. When I first became a Quaker, I stopped playing the radio when I did chores around the house. I found that I couldn’t really give my full attention to Mozart and to mopping the floor. To fully appreciate Mozart, I had to listen to his music with my full attention. And to fully appreciate mopping the floor, I had to do it with my full attention.
Gradually I learned to apply this principle to other parts of my life. Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might, is how Ecclesiastes the Preacher puts it. Tich Naht Hahn expressed the same idea when he says: Just do it. When you mop the floor, just mop the floor. When you make love, just make love.

Simple? Yes. Easy. Not at first. It takes a lot of practice to be simple. But practice alone doesn’t make us simple. We must let go, and let Spirit simplify our inward and outward life. As the old song says, simplicity is a gift—something we can’t achieve on our own. We must be open to receiving simplicity as a gift from the Divine.

The great Quaker practitioner of simplicity was John Woolman, a Quaker who lived in Mt Holly New Jersey and is the closest thing we have to a Quaker saint. He was a simple man, a trademan and tailor by profession, who came to realize that slavery was evil. At that time, many Christians, including many Quakers, owned slaves. Woolman came to realize that slavery was wrong when someone asked him to notarize a will that bequeathed a man’s slaves to his children upon his death. Woolman felt uncomfortable notarizing this document, but did it anyway. Later he felt such guilt that he never would notarize such a document again.

In fact, he spent the rest of his life visiting the homes of Quaker slave owners and tried to help them to see that slavery was wrong. To do this, Woolman had to simplify his life. He closed down his thriving retail business and took up tailoring, which required less time and commitment. He stopped wearing clothes that were dyed with indigo, a dye made by slave labor. He modeled the kind of simple life that he felt a Christian ought to live.

I have been inspired by John Woolman to simplify my life. My wife and I always tried to live simply but we found that after twenty years of marriage we had accumulated quite a lot of stuff, enough to fill a moving van. When decided to spend a year at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center where we met, we sold our house and got rid of half of our belongings. I gave away over 2500 books. We eventually reduced all we owned to what could fit into an 18 foot long portable storage unit.

We were all set to leave for the East Coast when we found out my wife had cancer. This forced us to change our plans and move to an apartment in Santa Monica. We began to simplify our lives even further as we adjusted to being cancer patients.

This was an incredibly difficult, yet joyful journey. We learned to let go not only of outward possessions, but also of attitudes and feelings that were standing between us and inner peace. We learned to live day by day, in simple gratefulness for being alive. We grew closer to each other, and to our friends, and to God. We learned to appreciate simple things as amazing gifts from God.

After a valiant struggle, Kathleen’s body succumbed to cancer on May 24. I found myself alone after twenty years of a wonderful marriage. It was very very painful.

Yet even loss can be a gift. Because my wife and I were soul mates, I feel that she is still with me in spirit. She continues to offer me guidance and support. And she even gave me a clue for the current direction of my life.

Just before she went into the hospital for the last time, we had a discussion about how we were going to live when she come home. I told her I would need to find a part-time job to supplement what we were receiving in disability allowance. I said I’d be willing to do just about anything, even go back to teaching part-time at a community college.

“Don’t do it,” she said. “You’ll hate it.”

I became annoyed and tried to reason with her. I told her we needed the money and this was one way I could earn it

“Think outside the box,” she said.

I realized later that she was right. After her death, I sat down and calculated my expenses if I lived simply and realized I didn’t need a paying job. If I lived modestly, as a Quaker should, I could live on my social security and savings. Best of all, I could devote myself full-time to what I love doing: being a peace and interfaith activist. I know this is what my wife would want me to do and what she was trying to help me see. Giving up unnecessary busy-ness is in keeping with our Quaker practice of simplicity. Many Friends reduced or gave up their businesses so that they could devote themselves to their religious concerns.

Simplicity doesn’t mean poverty. It means getting rid of excess stuff—things that stand between you and what Spirit is leading you to do.

Early Quakers felt that we needed to get rid of excess luxuries that made us prideful. William Penn wrote:

Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of
their persons, especially if they have any pretence to shape or beauty. Some are
so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their
attention. Their folly would diminish if they could spare but half the time to
think of God, that they spend in washing, perfuming, painting and dressing their
bodies. In these things they are precise and very artificial and spare no cost.
But what aggravates the evil is that the pride of one might comfortably supply
the needs of ten. Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained
in the face of its poor

Penn saw a relationship between excess consumption and social injustice. John Woolman also saw a relationship between consumerism and what he called “the seeds of war.” In a pamphlet A Plea for the Poor (written in 1763 and published in 1793), he argued that the accumulation of wealth was itself a form of violence and advocated what we might today call “right sharing” of economic resources in the interest of social justice: "May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and [our] garments, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions."7

This is certainly true today. Our addiction to oil, to big cars, to consumerism has led to our having the world’s largest military and a bloated military budget that makes it hard to have decent health care, like other industrial nations. In order to maintain our lifestyle, we feel we need to have military bases all around the world. We sow seeds of war every time we rev up our cars.

“Let Your Aye Be Aye and Your Nay Be Nay”

Another aspect of Quaker simplicity is saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Jesus felt the same way: He told his followers not to swear on oath, but to let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.”

For this reason, Quakers also refuse to take oaths. An oath implies that we don’t always tell the truth, we tell the truth only “under oath.” Quakers feel we must tell the truth at all times.
Quakers do not sign loyalty oaths. The Quaker lobbying group, Friends Committee of California, was founded in Sacramento during the McCarthy era to oppose loyalty oaths.

Loyalty oaths are a relic of the McCarthy era that are still around, though not much discussed. When I came to California in 1989, I got a job teaching at a community college and I was required to sign a loyalty oath that said I swore to defend the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies foreign and domestic and had no mental reservations. The first time I was given a teaching contract, I signed the oath because I was desperate for a job, and I felt terrible about it later.

A year later I got a job at another community college and was again asked to sign a loyalty oath. This time I consulted with my Quaker friends and was told that I had other options. I wrote a five page essay explaining why I was not comfortable signing the oath. The dean met with me and we had a good conversation and I agreed to sign the oath with an asterisk that said, “See appended statement.”

Later, when I went to work at other community colleges, I simply refused to sign the oath.
Not signing an oath was an important step for me since it gave me courage to speak truth to power in other situations. Many of my academic colleagues claimed they didn’t remember signing the loyalty oath. Clearly these academics were in denial. They didn’t want to admit they had done something they didn’t believe in. I am glad the Quakers got me into the habit of taking seriously what I say and do.

Incidentally, there is a risk involved in not signing the oath. When I refused to sign the oath, nothing happened to me. But I know of cases where professors were denied jobs here in California because they didn’t sign a loyalty oath. This happened within the last year or two when a woman was denied a job for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. She was honored at a Quaker event for following her conscience, and she had to go to court to get her job. It’s not easy to be simple.

Simplicity and Stewardship

In closing, I’d like to say that for contemporary Quakers, simplicity has come to mean reducing consumption for the sake of the planet’s heath. We recognize that we must live simply so that all life forms can simply live. Many of us go to thrift shops, recycle, or go vegan. My meeting in Santa Monica put up solar panels. We encourage our Members to reduce their carbon footprint.
Being simple ultimately means trying to live in harmony with Creation and with the Creator.
I’d like to end with a time of worship sharing and the following questions, or as we Quakers say, “queries.” Queries are used to help us to think more deeply about our lives.
Queries on Simplicity

· Do I center my life in an awareness of God’s presence so that all things take their rightful place?
· Do I live simply, and promote the right sharing of the world’s bounty?
· Do I keep my life uncluttered with things and activities, avoiding commitments beyond my strength and light?
· How do I maintain simplicity, moderation, and honesty in my speech, my manner of living, and my daily work?
· Do I recognize when I have enough?
· Is the life of our Meeting so ordered that it helps us to simplify our lives?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A simply wonderful day!

Sunday was a wonderful day, full of fascinating activities and people, some of whom are pictured here: Ruth Sharone, Ralph Fertig, Chris Chapple, Arin Ghosh, Sarah Shahawy, Joseph Prabhu and Varun Soni (dean of Religious Life at USC). These were some of the participants in the "Gandhi Remixed" event that took place at USC.

Today was also a wonderful day, spent quietly writing up a talk about simplicity that I am supposed to give at a breakfast meeting of the "Mastery Circle" tomorrow morning.

As I reflected over the past two days, I came to realize that every day has seemed wonderful to me since Kathleen and went on our cancer journey together.

By "wonderful" I mean "not boring," not "business as usual," but full of surprises and new learnings. When I read what some people write in Facebook, I am struck by how resigned some people are to the humdrum. "I just got back from a trip to Milwaukee. Whew! Am I tired." Or "Just put the baby to bed. Thank goodness." Sometimes these comments are meant to be funny, like my sister writing: "I'm pondering the meaning of life." Ten minutes later, she wrote: "Still pondering."

Well, I must confess that as I ponder life, what strikes me is not its meaningfulness, but its wonderfulness. When I re-read my wife's cancer journal, as I do from time to time, I realize how much she appreciated our everyday activities, whether it was going to a museum or talking to our nephew on the phone or just feeling strong enough to walk around the block. To her, it was all good. It was all wonderful. It was all worth thanking God for.

Sunday truly was definitely worth thanking God for. It began with my clerking a meeting of the pastoral care committee, which consists of two dear Friends, Louie and David. We looked over the membership list of our Meeting and tried to discern how to reach out to Friends who have moved away and are no longer active with our Meeting. I appreciated the care and thoughtfulness with which David and Louie approached this task which could seem mundane, but is really important, since it involves the spiritual life of our members. We then gave some consideration to a workshop proposals on "Healing, Caregiving and Grieving in the Light" that I am submitting to the FGC Gathering. Louie and David gave me lots of support and affirmation to this new leading, which I deeply appreciated.

Then I drove off to the University of California to help organize the Gandhi event we have been working towards since July. As volunteers began showing up, I helped Debra (our logistics chair) to guide people to jobs that needed to be done. We worked together beautifully and soon the area in front of Taper Hall was filled with lovely displays, literature tables, a weaving project, the Bhajan band playing Indian music, and other signs of Spirit at work and play.

The program came togther nicely. Around a hundred people showed up--not as many as we hoped, but a respectable number that half filled the hall.

The speakers were excellent. Chris Chapple, one of the foremost experts on Buddhism and the environment, made the connection with our excess consumerism and Buddhist principles of non-attachment. Joseph Prabhu, a leading expert on Gandhi, also did a fine job of making Gandhian ideas relevant to our times. Finally, Ralph Fertig, a contemporary of Martin Luther King and former Freedom Rider, told of his days as a Civil Rights lawyer and also how he was beaten up by angry whites. "Gandhi told us we must love our enemies," said Fertig with disarming honesty that made us all laugh. "But I didn't love the bigots who beat me up. What I loved was justice."

The young speakers were stellar. Sarah spoke with eloquence and conviction about how her Muslim upbringing has taught her to abhor war and to cherish justice and non-violence. Arin Ghosh spoke with wit and passion about Gandhi from a Vedantist perspective.

There was a spirited q and a period, followed by workshops. The workshops went very well since we had scheduled only eleven of them and so most workshops had between 6 and 12 people--an ideal number for indepth discussion.

The closing ceremony turned into a joyous dance when Nobuko teamed up the didgeridoo player and the drummer to get us out of our chairs and rocking in the aisles.

Yes, it was an extraordinary day, and an extraordinary evening as well. After our event, we went to a concert by Nishad Khah, one of the best sitarists in the world. I have heard live sitar before, but never like this. He played with such virtuosity and passion that even words like "dazzling" and "electrifying" seem inadequate. You can get a sample of his music at but you have to hear him live to get a sense of the magic in his performances.

Wonderful as Sunday was, I found today just as wonderful. I went to Chi Kong class and did some errands. Then I sat at my computer and meditated on the Simplicity Testimony. I will share what wonders I discovered on another day. Suffice to say, when you are working for the Lord, every day is simply wonderful.

Thank you for this day, O Lord, thank you for this day, this healing, this healing, this healing day!

The digeridoo and drums made the audience get up and DANCE! A happy ending to our "Gandhi Remixed " event.....

Friday, October 9, 2009

Does Pres. Obama deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? Yes, he can!

This morning at a meeting of ICUJP we learned that Pres. Obama had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. Our first reaction was one of amazement--he's a good man, but what did he do to deserve such a prize? The timing of the Nobel Committee's decision seemed especially ironic since this week was the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Obama is considering a troop surge and longterm occupation. To protest the US occupation of Afghanistan, we held a vigil on Wilshire Boulevard. (The picture shows us at the Farmer's Market on Wilshire and Vermont.)

During our discussion period prior to the vigil, one member of our group said drily that giving Obama the Peace Prize was "premature" since he had not done enough yet to deserve it. Others were more generous in their assessment of Obama's record, but we were all clear that we needed to write an open letter to Obama and the Nobel Committee, expressing our sense that Obama must do a great deal more than give good speeches if he is to deserve the honor he has been given. Fortunately, Obama seems to "get it" and so we wrote this letter to urge him to fulfill his promises and to live up to our hopes he has aroused here in this country and around the world.

Here is the letter, with editorial changes by our group, signed by our President Steve Rohde:

Does President Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? Yes, He Can!

When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to President Obama, they praised his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." That was a dramatic departure from the belligerency and unilateralism of the Bush administration. President Obama has indeed raised hopes that the US will end torture, close Guantanamo, reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal, and withdraw troops from Iraq. These are noble aspirations worthy of recognition, but will tragically be remembered as mere rhetoric unless President Obama takes concrete steps to accomplish them.

As the chair of a group of people of diverse faiths who have been meeting since 9/11 to promote justice and peace, I agree with President Obama that the Peace Prize is a "call to action." We hope it will encourage and challenge him not only to fulfill his promises, but to go further. It is not enough to withdraw troops from Iraq, he should also have an exit strategy for promptly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize came nearly eight years to the day after the US invasion of Afghanistan on Oct 7, 2001. Eight years of bloody war have passed—one of the longest wars in US history—and the situation in Afghanistan has grown worse, not better, according to most experts, even those who support this war. There have been 1,381 coalition deaths in Afghanistan, with the numbers spiking in the past two years. Civilian deaths—more than 2,000 Afghans were killed last year alone, according to the United Nations—have been a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war.

The majority of both Afghans and Americans now want us to leave. Yet many military experts are saying that we may be “obliged” to stay in Afghanistan for forty years or more to turn it into the kind of nation we want it to be.

No foreign power has ever had a military “success” in Afghanistan—all have been forced to leave, usually ignominiously, because the Afghan people do not want a foreign power to impose its will on them. Sooner or later, we will have to leave Afghanistan just like the Russians and the British.

Our endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are draining our national treasure as well as causing needless deaths. We are spending 130 billion dollars per year on our military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan—which is considerably more than Obama’s health plan would cost per year.

In accepting the Peace Prize, President Obama needs to realize that the problems of this region cannot be solved militarily. We must decrease our dependence on military solutions and increase our diplomatic efforts and development aid. We need to remember that terrorism cannot be ended by killing innocent people, especially mothers and children, as all too often happens in times of war.

To be worthy of the honor that the Nobel Committee has bestowed, President Obama needs to take several decisive actions. To live up to the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama should create a Department of Peace, a cabinet level agency with the mandate to seek peaceful solutions to international conflicts.

He must keep his promise to close Guantanamo and also close the notorious Bagram prison in Afghanistan. He must hold fully accountable all those who used, and authorized the use of, torture by the US government, be they high government officials, Justice department lawyers or CIA agents.

President Obama must withdraw our occupying forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stop supporting the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the siege of Gaza. He must insist that Israel abide by UN resolutions calling for an end to occupation of lands seized during the 1967 war and work for a peaceful, just two-state solution to the problem of Israel/Palestine.

As the best way to ensure peace and security, President Obama must reduce our bloated military budget and spend more on domestic needs at home and development needs abroad. To show the world that we are a responsible, law-abiding nation. President Obama needs to actively support the international court and international law.

In 1993, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that "humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war." Mandela passionately called for "a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees."

If President Obama fulfills these goals, he will indeed be worthy of the Peace Prize. It won't be easy, but he has given us hope that peace is possible. We believe that yes, he can!


Stephen Rohde is Chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, a group of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others formed in the wake of 9/11

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Howard Brinton Invented SPICE, the Quaker Testimonies....

I spent the last two days at the Whittier College library writing about Howard Brinton's contributions to Quaker thought, and I am finally beginning to get a handle on this challenging topic. Howard is the most important Quaker theological thinker of the 20th century and yet no one has written a critical assessment of his work.... until now. Incredible.

This excerpt is about how Howard "reinvented" or "discovered" the Quaker testimonies on simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality (SPICE)--a discovery for which he is seldom, if ever, given credit.

Howard’s Guide to Quaker Practice (1943) has gone through numerous reprints and has been a staple of First-Day classes for nearly sixty years. Howard’s recommendations for business meeting, First Day school, vocal ministry, and other Quaker practices are expressed with such clarity, and with such a sense of authority, that they have been incorporated into Quaker books of discipline and become “standard operating procedure” among many unprogrammed Friends.

Although Howard does not address doctrinal matters, this guidebook reflects theological convictions expressed in his earlier writings, as Howard himself admits: “Practice presupposed belief. For this reason the determining principles of the Society of Friends must be kept constantly in mind.”[1] Howard’s basic theological conviction—what he considers the core of Quakerism—is that Truth or the Divine can be experienced both individually and corporately through unprogrammed meeting for worship and that this method of worship is the defining characteristic of Quakerism. As he attempts to show in this guidebook, every Quaker practice can be traced to this underlying principle.

Perhaps the most important innovation in this work is its systematization of the Quaker social “testimonies.” A testimony is defined by Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice as “a public statement or witness based on beliefs of the Society of Friends which give direction to our lives.” Interestingly, the word was not widely used in Quaker books of discipline prior to the publication of Howard’s pamphlet. Books of disciplines contained “advices” and “queries” and statements of “Christian doctrine,” but seldom was there any mention of testimonies (except for the Peace Testimony).

Until the publication of Guide to Quaker Practice, there was no consensus about what Friends’ social testimonies were. For example, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Christian Doctrine, Practice and Discipline (1871) includes a series of “advices” on war, slavery, oath taking, national fasts and rejoicings (Quakers should not take part in them), burials and mourning habits (Quakers should refrain from wearing mourning garments or attending burials since these are vain rituals). Other books of discipline reveal a similar hodgepodge of advices or “testimonies” without any clearly discernible pattern.

Howard surveyed this jumble of advices and distilled them into four distinct and memorable social testimonies—simplicity, peace, community, equality—and one personal testimony (integrity). Howard’s formulation of the five Quaker testimonies has become so commonplace in Quaker religious education that it is often referred to by the acronym SPICE. These testimonies also frequently appear in books of disciplines among unprogrammed Friends in the United States, particularly in the West. Few Friends realize that Howard “discovered” or “reinvented” the testimonies in 1943.

Howard “discovered” these testimonies in the same way that a scientist discovers a “law” or recurrent pattern in the physical universe. He looked back at the advices and behavior of Friends and saw patterns of behavior springing out of a distinctive way of life and worship. But Howard was not simply being descriptive. He was also arguing for a certain view of Quakerism—one that is rooted in a group mystical experience and aims to transform not only individuals but society. As he explains:

The Society of Friends has never put forth a blueprint of the structure of the
ideal society, having the same reluctance in this respect as in putting forth a
religious creed. Nevertheless the meeting itself should aim, however short it
may come of attaining its ideal, at a pattern of human relations between its own
members which could be considered as ideal for society as a whole.[2]

Howard relates this “ideal pattern” both to the organic “body of Christ” described in Ephesisn 4:16 and also to a “laboratory and a training ground,” thereby appealing both to the scientifically and religiously minded.

The four social testimonies are so well known, and have been discussed at such length among Friends, it is not necessary to say much about them here. It is worth noting that Howard preferred the word harmony instead of peace or pacifism since the word pacifism “has come to mean, for many persons, simply an unwillingness to take part in war.” In Howard’s view, Quakers do more than simply refrain from war. They actively engage in a “ministry of reconciliation” that leads to peace and justice through nonviolent means.

Ultimately, Howard’s how-to manual is a call to personal and social transformation. He ends his guidebook on a prophetic note: “The early Friends, like the early Christians, did not try to adjust themselves to the world. Their effort was directed towards adjusting the world and themselves to the standard of their religion… They characterize a community of persons which seeks, however much it may fail, to obey the scriptural injunction ‘Be no conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”[3]

[1] Guide to Quaker Practice, p. 7.
[2] Guide to Quaker Practice, Pendle Hill, 1945, p. 56.
[3] Ibid, p. 65.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gandhi, St Francis, and Listening from the Heart....

After attnding a Quaker meeting, Gandhi gave it his glowing endorsement: "I greatly admire the silent prayers. We must devote part of our time to such prayers. They afford peace of mind."

I'm going to discuss the relationship between social activism and silent worship in a talk I plan to give this morning at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The title of this talk is: “Listening from the Heart,Speaking Out of the Silence."

I just realized today is also St Francis Day, so I will probably also recall the prayer attributed to him. The original version appeared in France in 1912 (I used to have a plaque with the French version in my office). It reads:

Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant à être consolé qu'à consoler,
à être compris qu'à comprendre, à
être aimé qu'à aimer,
car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit,
c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve, c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné,
c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.

The prayer also fits nicely with the theme of my talk: "Listening from the heart..."

I always feel at home among Unitarians because like the Quakers, they do not ascribe to a creed or a set of dogmas, but have principles they try live by. They value the dignity and worth of every individual, theyencourage people to think for themselves, theyare open to fresh ideas about Truth, and they are concerned about social justice and peacemaking, just like the Quakers.
The main difference between Quakers and Unitarians is in the manner of worship. Unitarian worship tends to be carefully planned, just like most Protestant worship services. Quaker worship is spontaneous. We gather together without a pastor or pre-arranged plan of worship so we can be open to “the still, small voice” within us. As a Quaker named Marsha Halliday explained:

We meet in plain, unadorned rooms because we have found that, in such places,
we are less distracted from hearing that still small voice. There are no
pulpits in our meeting rooms because we minister to each other. Our benches
or chairs face each other because we are all equal before God. We have no
prearranged prayers, readings, sermons, hymns, or musical orchestrations
because we wait for God's leadings (guidance and direction) and power in our

“During worship, a message may come to us. Friends have found that messages may be for our personal reflection or for sharing on another occasion. Or they may be a leading to stand and speak. Friends value spoken messages that come from the heart and are prompted by the Spirit, and we also value the silence we share together. Following a spoken message, we return to the silence to examine ourselves in the Light of that message. Meeting for worship ends when one Friend, designated in advance, shakes hands with his or her neighbors. Then everyone shakes hands. No two meetings are ever the same.”

This mode of worship was one that Gandhi found very appealing. Back in the 1920s, when a British Cabinet Mission went out to India to try to settle the Indian question, they took part in several Quaker Meetings which were attended by prominent Indian leaders, both Muslim and Hindu. Mahatma Gandhi attended one of these meetings.

Afterwards Gandhi spoke highly of the calm atmosphere which prevailed at this Quaker meeting for worship. "I greatly admire the silent prayers," he said, "We must devote part of our time to such prayers. They afford peace of mind."

Gandhi also said: "In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness." He also saw a connection between prayer and activism: "Prayer is not ...idle amusement,” Gandhi said. “Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action."

Silent worship is what drew me to the Quakers back in 1984. At the time, I had completed my Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers University and was finishing up a stint teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, but my life was in crisis. I had just gone through a painful divorce and my widowed mother was dying of emphysema. I went back to Princeton—my hometown—to help my mother and my kid sister during this difficult time.

My family situation was so complicated, so fraught with emotional turmoil, I felt helpless, so I asked God for assistance. Not long afterwards, an old friend of mine from graduate school showed up at my house and seemed to radiate calmness. He had changed drastically from the hyper person I knew from grad school so I asked him what had caused this change in his life. He told me about Quakerism and how it had helped him to find inner peace. Since I needed some peacefulness in my life, I decided to give Quakers a try.

Princeton Quakers meet in an old 18th century meetinghouse located in a beautiful,
peaceful wooded area near Stony Brook where I used to go fishing as a kid. I entered this ancient meetinghouse and sat down on a bench in front of a stone fireplace with forty or so others. We soon settled into deep silence. It was the most profound spiritual experience I had ever had, and it was just what I needed. I realized I didn’t need a preacher, or music, or words of any kind to have a relationship with the Divine. It was enough to sit in silence and experience the calm, peaceful Presence that lies deep within us. Quakers call this by many names: the Inner Light, the Inward Christ, the Seed. But there is really no word that can begin to describe what this experience is like. Paul perhaps said it best when he called it “the peace that passeth understanding.”

This is where Quaker peacemaking begins, in our way of worship. From this method of worship springs our Quaker commitment to peace, justice, and equality.

Our Quaker way of worship has been called “listening spirituality.” We worship in silence so we can listen more deeply to the “still, small voice” within ourselves. To hear this deep wisdom, we must let go of all the superficial chatter in our heads—the voices of our parents, our teachers, and others telling us what to do or think, or reminding us of chores we need to get done.

When we learn to listen to the “still, small voice” within ourselves, we also can learn to listen more deeply to others.

One of my Quaker mentors was a woman named Gene Hoffman who developed a technique she called “Compassionate Listening.” This technique is also sometimes called “listening from the heart.”

Such listening is based on the idea that most of us carry within us deep hurts and these hurts make it hard for us to open up to others. We cover up these hurts with our ego defenses—verbal rationalizations for what we do or say or believe. Beneath these ego defenses and hurts are our core values—the deep wisdom and truth which is the real essence of our lives.

When we listen deeply, we can hear beyond the ego defenses, beyond the hurt feelings, to the core of another person. Listening at this deep level is a healing experience both for the listener and for the one listened to. We may not agree with another person’s viewpoint, but we understand and appreciate where that person is coming from. We feel empathy and respect.

I practiced “compassionate listening” when I went to Israel/Palestine a few years ago. For two weeks we listened to Jews, Palestinians, settlers, people in settlements, peace people, and most difficult of all ,to parents who had lost their children to the violence. We listened without judgment, which sometimes was very hard. But such compassionate listening opened us up to a deeper understanding of diverse people and their even more diverse viewpoints.

Compassionate listening also helped me in my personal life. It helped me to listen to my mother, to my wife, to young people I worked with, and to people in the peace movement who are sometimes very conflicted. Gene Hoffman once wrote:

“During my life I’ve worked with many peace people and peace groups. Rarely were the people I worked with peaceful. Perhaps I was the least.”

Gene went on to say that “like our counterparts in the military, we thought or ourselves as the righteous ones, while those ‘out there’ were the ones to change.” As a result, we seldom changed anyone. “We weren’t meeting with the opposition; we weren’t in dialogue with them or listening to them. We didn’t have a notion of their hopes or grievances were. We listened mostly to ourselves.”

Gene challenged people in the peace movement to listen to those we disagree with, and to try to understand where they are coming from. It’s very hard, and very few in the peace movement even try. We prefer to preach to the choir.

“Listening from the heart” is not something we learn from conventional education. What I learned in college and grad school was to express myself, to make my point. My conventional education was all about me communicating my ideas. My Quaker education was all about hearing the wisdom in others.

Such a practice has made a huge difference in my life. Listening from the heart has enabled me to be more effective in conflict resolution and has deepened my understanding and appreciation of those with whom I disagree. It made me a better teacher, a better husband, and better person.

I learned how to listen from the heart in meeting for worship. Not everyone who speaks during a Quaker meeting for worship is a gifted preacher, and not everything said spontaneously is a pearl of wisdom. Nonetheless, we try to listen with compassion for the deep truth that may be lurking beyond the words. Our Faith and Practice advises us to be compassionate and non-judgmental listeners:

Those who are led to speak have different backgrounds, verbal skills and interpretive power. Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart, seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love. Listeners may find it helpful to pray that the messenger is faithful to the call, and that God’s word will emerge through the medium of human speech. A message that does not speak to one person’s needs may be helpful to another. After a message has been given, it is important to allow time to ponder its meaning, letting the Spirit move through the assembly of Friends before another ministers.

The non-judgmental listening skills we acquire during meeting for worship can be applied to situations in our daily lives. Such listening can make a huge difference.
Quakers do not have dogmas we are required to believe. Instead, we have advices and what we call queries, or open-ended questions, that stimulate us to reflect. One of my favorite queries is:

Do we practice the art of listening, even beyond words?

Do we listen, even beyond words? Real listening takes time, and that’s why it’s a lost art in our culture. Real listening sometimes mean waiting until a shy person, or a people with deep hurts or deep wisdom, feels that it is safe to speak.
In our Quaker worship sharing sessions, several minutes sometimes pass after one person has finished speaking and another person starts speaking. In that long period of waiting in silence we try to listen as deeply as we can to what has been said, and to what is stirring inside us. In so doing, we create a space where we can share the deep wisdom that is within us, the wisdom that comes from the heart and speaks to the heart.

So I will leave you with two questions to reflect upon:

How do you feel when you are listened to, and feel really heard?

How has listening deeply helped you in your relationship with others?