Monday, January 31, 2011

How God and Quakerism changes your brain

I've been deeply impressed by a book called "How God Changes Your Brain" by Dr. Mark Waldman, a neuro-scientist who has done significant research on how various spiritual practices affect brain functioning. What most impressed me is how this research validates what I have experienced as a Friend. In fact, I am thinking of writing an article called "How God and Quakerism Changes Your Brain."

Dr. Waldman began his workshop by telling a story that touched my heart as a Quaker. He told of a very old rabbi who was asked to speak at an interfaith event. The rabbi was in his 90s and walked so slowly to the podium that people were afraid he might not make it. When he finally reached the podium, he paused for a long, long time. The pause was so long that some people wondered if he was having a senior moment and had forgotten why he was standing there.

Finally, the rabbi smiled and spoke these wise, memorable words:

"I hope what I have to say will be an improvement on the silence."

This story confirms what Friends and other contemplatives know experientially. Silence is not "dead air"; it is not something to fear or to fill up with words and activities; it is precious and can be deeply healing. One of the important discoveries of brain research is that relaxation through meditation and/or silent worship affects your brain functioning in many positive ways. (Research also shows that yawning can achieve similar results.)

Quakers place more emphasis on silence and "presence" than on words, which confirms what brain research has shown to be important factors in communicating. In a section on compassionate communication, Dr. Waldman notes that the most important communicator is facial expression, followed by body language, tone of voice, speed of speech, and numbers of words used to convey a message. If one smiles, speaks slowly, briefly and clearly from the heart, people are more apt to listen and receive your message positively.

Negative words like "No, terror, bad" instantly cause the brain to emit chemicals that can be harmful, while the use of positive words like "peace, love, joy" causes the brain to emit chemicals that can actually prolong life.

Dr. Waldman is careful to provide notes and sources showing that all his assertions are backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies.

As I took Dr. Waldman's workshop, listened to his CD, and read his book, I began to think about how our Quaker practices use many of these techniques. When people give vocal ministry during Quaker meeting for worship, they tend to speak more slowly and reflectively. Their facial expression tends to become gentler. They often smile in that Mona Lisa type way that Dr. Waldman says conveys compassion.

During a recent gathering of Quarterly meeting clerks, I decided to engage in an experiment. I began to observe how I felt during the meeting. What inward states was I experiencing?

Granted, this was not as scientific as a brain scan, but I have done enough meditating over the years to become fairly alert about what is happening inside me as I go through various experiences. I hope that someone like Dr. Waldman will someday be inspired to monitor the brain waves of participants in various kinds of religious meetings, including a Quaker business meeting. My hunch is that research will show that those who take part in Quaker business meetings have much more peaceful brain activity than those involved in conventional meetings.

The meeting I monitored began with a "check in" in which participants shared what was happening in their lives. The ten of us did this very unhurriedly, over a period of nearly an hour, with each person speaking for around 3 minutes and with approximately two or three minutes of silence between sharing. We began with 5-10 minutes of silence to center down. Then one Friend shared how he had not been looking forward to coming to an all-day meeting, but then had realized he wasn't coming just to give, but also to "draw from the well." The image of "drawing from the well" resonated with many of us and helped create a positive mindset that felt good.

Others shared from the personal lives. It felt good to hear what was being shared, and also to realize we were in no hurry. There was ample silence after each period of sharing in which we could reflect on what had been said. It felt good to know that no one was judging, criticizing, or offering advice. We were listening compassionately. We felt at peace.

I was especially moved when a friend shared her personal struggles. "I feel young, but my body is getting old," she said. She told us about the horrendous physical challenges she had been through over the past few months, but ended on an upbeat note. She told us about joyful times she had spent with her grand children, and how she was looking forward to coming to this meeting. "I knew I couldn't miss this," she said. "I need to be among my good friends."

Everyone spoke slowly and calmly, and from the heart. There was no "spiritual rhetoric," but now and then a pearl of wisdom emerged naturally (just the way pearls are produced in nature). This set the mood for our day's work. We managed to get through the day in a calm spirit of worship, except for one moment when Friends got a little excited about something I no longer can remember. Many of us started raising our hands to get the clerk's attention, and then the clerk said calmly:

"Let's have some time of silent worship."

We took a deep breath and centered down. After three or four minutes of calming silence, a Friend raised her hand, made a very clear point, and our issue was resolved. We moved on to the next business item in the spirit of worship.

During the meeting, we took time to make sure we were clear about our decisions. Our recording clerk read them back to us, and we paused and reflected. Is this really what Spirit wants us to do? Does this really convey the consensus of the group?

At the end of the afternoon, the minutes were read a final time, just to be sure we were all clear about what we had decided. Everything was done with deliberate slowness.

It felt very good, very calming.

What I have described is, I think, pretty typical of how seasoned Friends conduct business. When I first began to attend Quaker meetings 25 years ago, I found this process rather slow and even boring. But having experienced other groups and how they conduct business, I am convinced that the Quaker way is probably very good for the brain, as well as for the heart and the spirit. My hope and prayer is that other groups can learn how to conduct their business in a slow, reflective and Spirit-led way. I believe, and research has confirmed, that inner peace begins when we listen and communicate compassionately.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Good news about Muslims and Quakers

I'd like to share with you a post I just wrote for This new blog is doing very well, by the way, and now has 36 subscribers. We post interesting news about Quakers and the interfaith movement almost daily. Among our most popular posts have been ones about Quakerism and Judaism, Khalil Gibran, the documentary "Out of Cordoba," Quakers and Buddhism, and Ram Dass ("Be Here Now").


During the late summer, when the big story nationally was about opposition to the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”), the big story here in Southern California was the effort on the part of fundamentalist Christians in Temecula to prevent a mosque from being built 3,000 miles from Ground Zero. Some of the opponents used zoning issues as an excuse, while others openly expressed their prejudices about Islam and their fears about terrorism.

I’m glad to report the Temecula Muslims have finally be allowed to build a place of worship just like other religious groups.

It wasn’t easy. Interfaith groups both locally and throughout Southern California rallied in support of Temecula Muslims, and so did Friends. Santa Monica Friends signed on to a letter of support you can read at The Muslim community was very grateful for the support they received from non-Muslims, including Jews and Christians.

The city council of Temecula faced enormous pressure but stood firm in support of religious freedom. A meeting went on for eight and a half hours, in which both sides aired their views in a heated debate. Thanks be to the good sense of the city council, the First Amendment prevailed, and the Muslims were allowed to build their mosque:

Another bit of good news came by way of Facebook. I learned that Friends from Chapel Hill, NC, have opened up their meetinghouse to the Muslim community:
“Some 30 Muslims from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community met to pray at the the Chapel Hill Friends Meeting, the worship hall facility for local Quakers, on Raleigh Road. Women gathered in the rear, while the men knelt in front, all facing toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim holy city.”Up until now, we were restricted to a room at UNC Hospitals,” said Yousef Mohsin, a junior at UNC from New York City. “I’m glad to have a place to worship.”
“It’s wonderful for students and the Muslim community, and provides a great platform for Muslims to get together,” said Sanam Sheikh of Chapel Hill.
Read the rest of the story at:

It is always gratifying to read that Friends have opened up their meetinghouse to other faiths. When I went to Minneapolis Meeting this summer, I learned that Friends there are sharing their meetinghouse with a Jewish congregation. Such hospitality and sharing of worship space is what Universalism is all about.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Haiku written during a year at a Zen Center

Sitting there

"Don't just do something…sit there!" - A Quaker expression

These haiku were written 25 years ago during a year I spent at the Providence, Rhode Island, Zen Center. This was an intense period of my life: I had just completed my Ph.D in British literature, my first marriage had come to a crashing end, and my mother was dying and needed my help as a caregiver. During this time of crisis, I discovered with great joy and relief the Quaker meeting in Princeton, NJ, and found the supportive spiritual community I desperately needed. I also found solace and empowerment in the practice of Quaker silent worship and Zen meditation.

On leave from academia, I began editing a magazine called "Fellowship in Prayer" (now called "Sacred Journeys"). This job gave me the opportunity to meet spiritual teachers from various traditions and to explore a variety of spiritual practices--thereby beginning what has become an interfaith ministry. Feeling drawn to Zen Buddhism, I decided to spend a year at the Zen Center in Providence, RI.

A book could be written about this fascinating year, and I intended to write one. But what I ended up writing was a series of haiku describing my experiences as a series of snap shots.

My teacher was Seung Sahn, one of the first Korean Zen masters to settle in the USA. I never formed a close bond with him--he traveled a lot, supervising his various Zen centers--but what I remember best is a story about him that my friend Ellen Sider told. Ellen was a sculptress as well as a Zen practitioner. Early in her practice, she went to Seung Sahn with some haiku she had written and asked for his opinion.

"They are very nice," he replied. "But you must learn to be stupid."

I have never forgotten that lesson. In the spiritual life, we must not strive to be clever, but rather to tap into the deep wisdom that is beyond words.

During this period I also learned important spiritual lessons from my Quaker friend and teacher Teresina Havens. Terry, as she was known, was a brilliant woman who had completed her Ph. D. at Yale in the 1930s--her dissertation was about the Buddhist teacher Nichiren who she felt was closest of all the Buddhists to the spirit of George Fox and Quakerism. During their retirement, Terry and her husband Joe started a retreat center near Amherst called Temenos. This center had close ties with the Providence Zen Center, and I often went to Temenos to spend time with the Havens.

Terry was one of the most vitally alive people I have ever known. She and her husband put into practice the Quaker testimony on simplicity and lived on a hilltop in a camp without running water or electricity. They organized workshops and raised awareness about social as well as spiritual concerns. Despite her aged body and stooped back, Terry had taken up sacred dancing and was eager to explore new ways to embody the Spirit.

One day as I watched Terry brush her hair out doors in the midst of a birch grove, a haiku came to me. In that moment, in a flash of insight, I saw that Terry's spirit as eternally spring-like, continually renewing itself.

I hope that in reading these haiku, you catch some glimpses of what is eternally present--this precious moment in which we live and breathe and have our being.

A number of these haiku have been published in various magazines, and a series of them appeared recently in a Quaker book called "Enlivened by the Mystery: Quakers and God": I encourage you to go to this site and learn more about how the Spirit works among Friends.


harvest moon
entering the dark temple
i bow to shadows

in silence
awaiting the teacher's bell

our shadows on the floor
pass so quickly...

a parked car
racing its engine; an incense stick
drops ash

chips scatter!
he whacks away at his still
unfinished Buddha

straining to see
the blue heron come again....

just before dawn
moon fading above the trees--
deer at the saltlick

first freeze--
a leaf on a film of ice
trickling water

a fly
buzzes round the window. . .
icy winds

enlightenment day--so much ado
about Nothing!

stopping by
the drugstore on a snowy evening--
may i help you, please?

running across
the room, a child plops down
on Master's cushion

shaku hachi flute
by flickering candlelight--
butterfly dreams

cold spring night--
no wind, no sound at all...
then two peepers

Beneath cold stars
a monk walks slowly past us
following his breath

a black fly leisurely breakfasts
on my nose

put down your broom!
this hairy humpbacked spider
was also your mother

near some birches
a woman brushes her white hair
first day of spring

fee-bee, fee-bee
the song the chickadees sang
the day my wife left

spring winds:
so much depends
on what i can't see

in the old garage
ledgers and notebooks rot
with last fall's leaves

among misty pines
at sunset, a hermit thrush
lifts its tail and sings

how brightly the sun
glistens on the web spun last night
on this tarnished buddha!

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Re-birthday Poem for Bill Taber, Quaker mystic

I have decided to dig into what I call my "Emily Dickinson drawer" and pull out some old poems written in other lifetimes. This poem was written at Pendle Hill 25 years ago when I was studying with Bill Taber, a Conservative Friend with such a deep mystical awareness it was contagious: you couldn't help feeling peaceful in his presence. He wrote a classic PH pamphlets like the "Four Doors of Worship" and "Prophetic Stream." But what was most memorable about Bill Taber was the fact that more than any other Friend I have known, he lived almost continually in an altered state of consciousness, deeply mindful of the Inward Light within himself and others. Just sitting next to him, you could felt as if you were entering a river of peace, what he called the "prophetic stream." So I wrote this poem to convey something of what it was like to be in the presence of a true Friend.


(For William Taber)

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time unto his mother's womb, and be born?--

John, 3:4

Softly, but irresistibly, the wind blows....
he feels it deep inside
and does not shrink away.

He sits and waits
until the healing breath flows through him--

until the eyes of his heart open
and the red bird flies
out of its cage, lights on a withered tree,
and sings....

He sits until the song of silence
turns his silver hair to gold.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Marriage as a Spiritual Journey, and a Leap of Faith

I have been thinking a lot about marriage, and re-marriage, lately. Marriage is a very challenging spiritual discipline, a leap of faith, though very few people see it in this light. Many see marriage as a romantic adventure, or as a commitment to raise a family--both good and necessary components of marriage. But there is yet another dimension--what Christians call agape, or selfless Love. Agape Love is the glue that keeps a marriage together and strong, and makes it fulfilling and beautiful, for the long haul, "until death do us part," and beyond.

Today over half of marriages in the USA end in divorce, leaving both parties traumatized and wary of love. Those who marry a second time have a 65% divorce rate, and the rate is even higher for third timers. Yet people keep trying, hoping against hope. As Dr. Johnson said, "Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

Many people experience romantic love and have sex, and then bear and raise children; and if they are lucky, their relationship evolves into something like friendship. But few discover their soul mates and experience what it means to love with one's whole heart and soul.

Over the past few months, I have talked to quite a number of women and very few have a clue about what it means to love and be loved deeply. Those who have an inkling of what it means are for the most part widows who have had a relationship similar to the one I had with my wife of blessed memory. It's been very precious to share memories and insights with those who know what it's like to be married to one's best friend and soul mate.

Last night, I opened the journal that my wife of blessed memory kept during the year before she passed. Her words, written on November 20, 2008, describe beautifully and simply what a marriage of true minds (and hearts) is all about. Since this experience is such a rarity, and yet one that so many wish to have, I feel her testimony is worth sharing

"Anthony and I had a very special time a the end of today sharing our feelings of deep love and appreciation for each other! At our cancer support groups this evening we realized that we are at a very different level of healing than the other members of the group. Most of them are still struggling with emotional healing. Anthony's caregivers' group especially are struggling to care for traditional husbands who show little appreciation for their hard work. Emotional upheavals, blame, hurt feelings and frustration is the pattern of their struggle to give care.

"We remember those times in our marriage when we had those deep painful struggles as well. And as we talked last night, we realized that our practice of constant words and expressions of appreciation and thanks to each other over the years has healed the deep pain felt by most when their needs have not been met. In fact, we spend most of our energy trying to meet meet other's needs. That is in fact our greatest goal, to serve each other with love. Whatever we give like this we receive as much back.

"Anthony reminded us of the words of St Thomas a Kempis on how to live a Christian life: 1) Seek to serve others 2) Seek to work in the humblest place.

"Then we laughed at the reaction our support group would have to this advice--they'd think we were hopelessly out of touch with 'reality,' living in a romantic dream world.

"But it's really the 'fullness of life' world that God created us to live in! We both feel blessed to have found a life partner who was eager to work on emotional feelings, healing of mind and spirit through the years. It is miraculous when two people of like mind find each other."


Living the 'fullness of life' with one's partner, even in the face of death, is a miracle too deep for words. But I hope these words help us to see that such a marriage is not rocket science, it simply requires constant practice and care, like learning to sing or to dance or to play a musical instrument. I am grateful to Kathleen for taking the time to practice this sacred dance with me, and to help us both live in harmony with the Spirit who created us to love and be loved forever.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Black Tulips": A Story of Love and Courage from War-Weary Afghanistan

Over 400 members of interfaith community of Los Angeles, along with dignitaries from Afghanistan and elsewhere, gathered at the Museum of Tolerance to view the movie “Black Tulip” by Afghan film-maker Sonia Nassery Cole. This film is the official submission from Afghanistan to the Academy Awards so this screening in Los Angeles was an important event. The film was also screened in Kabul, an extremely dangerous venue. Afghanistan once had a thriving film industry, but the Taliban closed it down. Since this film is highly critical of the Taliban, screening the film in Kabul took a lot of chutzpah. Ms. Cole was advised by General Petraeus not to screen this film in this venue, but she was determined to do so.

If an award were given for courage, Ms. Cole would certainly deserve it. “Black Tulips” was filmed in Afghanistan under extremely dangerous and trying conditions, something that the makers of “Kate Runner” didn’t have the audacity to do. (That movie was filmed in China.) As “Black Tulips” was being shot, bombs were exploding in the streets near their hotel and several camera and crew members went home, afraid for their lives. Neither these defections nor daily death threats nor rampant corruption deterred the irrepressible Ms. Cole.

“Come hell, come shine, I was going to make this movie,” she said.

Ms. Cole also deserves kudos for her inspiring portrayal of Afghan women. They are presented as intelligent, courageous, compassionate and extraordinarily beautiful. When I told this to my Afghan woman friend, she replied, “Of course, she was just being accurate.”

The plot involves an Afghan woman named Farishta who, along with her reluctant but supportive husband, opens up a restaurant called “The Poet’s Corner” where patrons are free to voice their opinions and feelings via an open mike. Many speak out again the Taliban, and this of course leads to trouble.

The film is visually powerful and captures the beauty of Afghan life and landscape in a way I have never before seen on film.

Ms. Cole, 45, is a woman of many talents and gifts--a true visionary whose work springs from a deep spiritual base. In addition to directing the film and writing the screenplay, she plays the leading role. The film is partly based on her own experiences. She knows first-hand the cruelty of the Russians since she was forced to flee to the U.S. after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She was also harassed by the Taliban during her filming of the movie.

Ms Cole is not only a film maker but a humanitarian. As noted in her bio, she “created the Afghanistan World Foundation, which supports the economic and social development of her home country. Cole then made The Breadwinner, a short documentary about a day in the life of a nine-year old Afghan boy, Farouk, who supports his parents and siblings.”

I was deeply impressed and moved by The Black Tulip, and even more impressed by the film maker herself who was present for Q and A and shared the story of how her film was made. That story is so interesting it deserves to be made into a documentary.

I did not find the film entirely satisfying, however. As a peace activist, I was concerned that it presented a distorted view of what is happening in Afghanistan--one that could help imperialistic Americans to justify the "Long War"--the 50-year war that the military is planning in order to "tame" the Muslim world and make it safe for American interests.

A big red flag for me was the movie's idealized portrayal of American soldiers. They are not only benevolent, but also heroic. They totally supported the "Poet's Corner" restaurant--symbol of Afghan freedom. When the owners' daughter is abducted, the American soldiers bravely rescue her.

There is no hint that American soldiers ever do anything that cause the death of innocent Afghan or do anything that might provoke a backlash or an insurgency.

If American soldiers are so benign, why did a recent poll show that 55% of Afghans want them to leave? In the Q and A, Ms. Cole was challenged by a woman leader of the Afghan community and asked about the presence of 150,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Ms. Cole responded that most American soldiers don't understand or mingle with the Afghan people very much, that the killing of Afghan civilians by American soldiers is a big problem, and that there should be fewer soldiers and more humanitarian projects. In other words, what Ms. Cole says in person is the opposite of what the movie suggests and very close to what many of us in the peace movement are saying.

The movie also glosses over the corruption that is endemic in Afghanistan. At one point in the film, a mild-mannered government official shows up at the restaurant to offer "protection" and Faristhta offers him a whiskey and free meals. The official smiles and is satisfied with this token gift and eventually becomes a close friend of the family. The reality of corruption is much uglier and more sinister, as Ms. Cole herself revealed in the Q and A. Just as she was about to leave the country, the management of the hotel where she was staying demanded $38,000 in extortion and confiscated her passport until she paid up. All she had in the bank was enough money to pay the extortion money required to take her expensive equipment through customs out of Afghanistan--another $40,000. It is only through the miraculous intervention of a rich Afghan "angel" who offered her $58,000 in cash that Ms. Cole was able to leave the country with her film.

Nowhere in the film is it suggested that this kind of corruption might lead Afghans to turn against the Karzai/American government and join the insurgents.

Finally, the Taliban are presented as the embodiment of evil. Treacherous, cowardly, greedy, and fanatical, they are without a single redeeming trait or quality. No effort is made to explain why some Afghans have become such vile creatures. At the risk of spoiling the ending of the film, let me say that the film perpetuates what theologian Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence."

This Good vs. Evil scenario is one that may play well in America since it reinforces our cowboy mentality, but it doesn't help us to understand why some Afghans become Taliban, or why the Afghans want us to leave their country. Recent polls show the a majority of Afghans want US forces to leave, 85% feel the Afghan police are corrupt and untrustworthy, and most think badly of the Taliban. In other words, Afghans don't have good options. But a vast majority agree that the fighting needs to stop and there needs to a negotiated settlement that includes the Taliban. Polls are not infallible, of course, and public opinion constantly shifts, but it is worth noting what the latest polls suggest that Afghans are tired of war and want a settlement:

While human rights organizations and women’s advocacy groups mount a spirited
campaign against any accommodation with the Taliban, 73 percent of those [Afghans] polled said it was time to negotiate with the insurgents. While the Taliban do not enjoy much popularity in the country — only 9 percent said they would prefer them to the current government — it seems that the appetite for conflict has waned among Afghans, who mainly just want to get on with their lives.

"Black Tulips" is a well-intentioned effort to promote the views shared by many in the human rights and women's advocacy movement, namely, that there is no way to reach an accord with the Taliban and therefore we need to fight them to the bitter end. This attitude is understandable, given the horrendous behavior of the Taliban, but such intransigence will probably not help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Peace generally comes about when all parties--including those that feel the need to resort to violence and terrorism--see an advantage to coming together and working out a compromise solution. Bringing about a negotiated settlement will not be easy, but the alternative is never-ending war, as the British and Russian empire learned when it attempted to "tame" Afghanistan.

And as many Afghan women have learned, war is never good for women, children, and other living creatures.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Honoring Dr. King in diverse ways

This has been a very special MLK weekend. On Saturday, I took part in a Martin Luther King conference called "Building the Beloved Community" sponsored by the University of Laverne, Christ the Redeemer Church, and the the Parliament of the World's Religions. This event featured Dr. Mark Waldman, a neuroscientist who has written extensively about religion, based on the latest scientific research. His most recent book "How God Changes Your Brain" shows how religious practices like prayer and affirmation alter your brain functioning in positive ways. He led us in a series of exercises to teach "Compassionate Communication." I led a workshop on Compassionate Listening with my Sufi friend Noor Malika. This is the kind of practical skill building we need to cultivate in order to bring peace into our daily lives as well as into our peace activism.

On Sunday I took part in a joyful and uplifting celebration sponsored by the South Coast Interfaith Council in Long Beach. We heard a thoughtful keynote address by the Honorable Deborah Sanchez, a judge who is also a leader of the Chumash Indians. The highpoint of this celebration was the amazing music--gospel sung with gusto by both whites and blacks that rocked our bodies and fed the soul.

My weekend culminated in the MLK parade in S. Central LA. Marching with the peace community was a special blessing. It was also uplifting to see my dear Quaker friend Donna Buell bring her grandkids to this parade so they would learn to be Quaker peace activists at an early age.

I am glad I had the chance to honor his commitment to peace by handing out ICUJP flyers about the Cost of War (see And I'm pleased to report that this message was well received by the crowds who come to honor Dr. King.

There are so many diverse ways to honor Dr. King! It also occurred to me that MLK Day is the only national holiday that has not been drained of meaning due to commercialization. George Washington birthday has become simply an excuse to go on a shopping spree, like Lincoln's birthday. Labor Day has become a time to relax with one's family, not think about the important contribution of organized labor to American life. The 4th of July is about fireworks and barbecue, not about reflecting on the birth of our nation and what it means. Thanksgiving has become a sentimental holiday, a mindless affront to Native Americans, that whitewashes what really happened between Indians and white colonialists.

Only MLK Day challenges us to think and reflect on important issues, like racism, economic justice, peace, and our spiritual lives. Thank God that Dr. King's spirit lives on, challenging as well as inspiring us!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Peace Activities Coming Up in the Los Angeles area

January could be considered interfaith peace month, with Martin Luther King Day in the midst of it, inspiring us with his example and his prophetic words:

“We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other. This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.”

There are so many excellent MLK events in LA it is hard to choose which one to attend. I will highlight just a few that I am personally involved with.

First, there are two MLK events coming up this weekend:

1) On Sunday, Jan 16, from 3-5 PM there is one in Long Beach, sponsored by the South Coast Interfaith Council, and featuring a Chumash Indian leader named Deborah Sanchez.

2) On Saturday, Jan 15, from 9 AM-noon there is an MLK event in Irvine, sponsored by the Parliament of the World's Religions. It includes workshops and a keynote speaker named Dr. Mark Waldeman, a neuro-scientist specializing in peaceful communication.

For details about both these events, see:

Other interfaith peace events coming up in So Cal include: a traveling art show sponsored by the AFSC ( , a series of screenings of "War Made Easy" sponsored by ICUJP ( , and training in nonviolent activist by Rev. Dr. James Lawson, a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King. All of these are listed below:

Upcoming AFSC event

Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 7:00pm - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - 12:00 am. AFSC is sponsoring Windows and Mirrors, a traveling exhibit that provides an opportunity to see ourselves in depictions of the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of artists and children. See

2011 ICUJP "Cost of War" Program

Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace ( is coordinating a season-long campaign to raise awareness of the costs, in dollars and lives, of the wars in which the United States has been so long engaged. Events in the campaign include:

Screenings of "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death"

Thursday, January 20, 4 p.m.: Community Coalition: 8101 S. Vermont Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90044

Sunday, January 30, 3 p.m.: Peace Sunday. Unitarian Universalist Church, 1260 18th StreetSanta Monica, CA 90404-1206

Sunday, February 20, 3 p.m.:St. Camillus Catholic Center: 1911 Zonal Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90033-1032

Friday, February 25:Islamic Center of Hawthorne12209:
12209 Hawthorne Way Hawthorne , CA 90250
Friday, February 26: Islamic Institute of Orange County 1220 North State College BoulevardAnaheim, CA 92806-1504 (I will be a panelist at this event.)

Friday, April 1, 11 a.m.: Church Women United. Location TBA


A Nonviolence Workshop with James Lawson

Date: Saturday, January 29, 2011
Time: 9:00 AM to Noon

Location: Holman United Methodist Church, 3320 W. Adams Blvd., L A

This is a free event. Refreshments will be provided.

Contact: Gloria Bailey: 323-296-5942

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Distractions during meeting for worship

Quaker meeting for worship may seem simple--and it is--but it can also be hard and require discipline. In the silence of meeting for worship, every minor sound can seem disruptive if we don't discipline ourselves to see distractions as opportunities for spiritual growth, as Douglas Steere suggests in his introduction to "Quaker Spirituality":

"[Some Friends] are troubled by all kinds of distractions that intrude into the silence. Some of these distractions are physical ones: noise of all kinds in this restless world we live in, a body that they find cannot still, or the entrance into meeting of some latecomer. These can often be dealt with by lifting the noises into an inward prayer: "O God, may I enter into Your Presence with all the swift movement that is in that airplane that I hear flying overhead" or "O God, I thank you that our friend who has come late has come at all, and may he be especially blessed.

"Others may suffer from far more difficult distractions: the internal ones that come from our own mental grappling with unsettled issues, with difficult decisions, with all kinds of irrelevant thoughts that tumble in. They learn in time how to deal with these by acknowledging them as parts of their own uncollected lives that of course float up to the surface of consciousness in such a moment of freedom and that demand their attention. The Jews have a suggestive hint about dealing with mental distractions by describing them as a part of ourselves that sense a blessing is about to come and appear because they want to be sure to be hallowed by it! In either of these types of distractions, Friends learn not to try to suppress them but to acknowledge their presence and abandon themselves to being open to the inward Christ, the Guide, the Renewer, even if the distractions continue to be there without."

This past week at my Meeting, an elderly woman named Dora was having trouble with her oxygen tank and the hissing sound made it difficult to focus or to hear another Friend's message.

It was an awkward moment, and it was tempting to become annoyed. Instead, I focused on my breath, and on cultivating compassion. I thought of how my mother suffered from emphysema and how painful it was for her to breathe and how I learned to feel empathy for her during this trying period. (My mother was a smoker who refused to give up cigarettes, and I had to learn how to let go of my judgmentalism and love my mother as she was, quirks and all.) Soon loving feelings arose in my heart, and I sent them in Dora's direction. Two Friends who were next to Dora began attending to the problem by calming her down and adjusting her oxygen tanks. I felt grateful for them and for another Friend's message acknowledging her appreciation of their solicitude.

As I centered down, reflecting on what had happened, and focusing on my breathing, as I often do, I began to realize in a visceral way the importance of the breath, how crucial it is for life---we can live for a month or more without food, a week without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen--so it is with the divine Spirit that the Hindus call prana, and the Hebrews called Ruah, the sacred breath of God, our true Life. We cannot live even for a second without the Divine Spirit sustaining us.

By means of these reflections, partly cultivated, partly inspired, a "distraction" became a blessing--a way to appreciate how the Divine works in every moment and in every situation, and through every person, if only we are willing to let go of our egos and be open to what our Inward Light reveals.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Brand-New Quaker Universalist Blog

I am pleased and excited about a new blog that I have launched on behalf of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF). It will feature articles and news items about the interfaith/ecumenical movement, Quaker theology, etc. It will also contain the latest news about the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference--the group that represents Quakers at the National and World Council of Churches. You can access this blog at

As the QUF mission statement explains,

Quaker Universalist Fellowship is a gathering of Friends who work to foster understanding among people from the diverse spiritual cultures which flourish in our globalized human community. The Fellowship draws inspiration for its work from such traditional and respected statements of Quaker faith as are
represented by the following:

"Walk cheerfully over the earth answering to that of God in everyone.” – George Fox

“There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in
different places and ages hath different names: it is, however, pure and
proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” – John Woolman

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.” – William Penn

The work of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship expresses Friends’ belief that there is a spirit of universal love in every person, and that a compassion-centered life is therefore available to people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Through publications, lectures, and conferences the Quaker Universalist Fellowship seeks to encourage appreciation of the diverse paths to that spirit available in humankind’s various spiritual cultures, to overcome discord, and to foster openness and listening among people of different religious faiths. In carrying out this work we cooperate with Friends from every branch of Quakerism.

We seek, or create, opportunities for all Friends to engage in constructive dialogue among Quakers and with representatives of other spiritual traditions, in the hope that religious faith, although diverse, will become a force which unites rather than divides the human family. We seek to nurture that unity through lives of simplicity, humility, justice, mercy, and peace so that it becomes a beacon drawing together the human family in love and service to all earthly life.

QUF Steering Committee, October 2009

I hope you enjoy this new blog and continue visiting, which will consist of my usual (or rather unusual) mix of political, spiritual and personal entries.

Santa Monica Friends Oppose Torture in our Prisons and Abroad

I am pleased that Santa Monica Friends Meeting unanimously approved the following minute opposing torture. Our Peace Committee also approved a banner calling for an end to torture in our prison system as well as abroad. Many Americans don't realize--but Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee makes it clear in her well-reseached writings--that our prison system practices "cruel and unusual punishment" compared to most other nations. Even the California Supreme Court recognized that the California prisons are in violation of the Constitution because of the overcrowding and other inhumane conditions. I wish that the majority of Americans, particularly in the religious community, felt as Friends do about torture and our prison system. I am grateful to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture for lifting up this issue. Let's make ending torture a priority in 2011!

Santa Monica Friends stand firmly opposed to torture and support the work of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture ( as well as of Quakers Initiative to End Torture ( We call on our elected officials, and especially the President of the United States, to bring to justice those who have authorized torture in violation of US and international law. We also want the United States government to stop preventing the victims of US-sponsored torture from seeking redress and just compensation in US courts. Finally, we support the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which can help prevent torture and abuse by requiring a ratifying country to establish National Preventative Mechanisms (NPMs) to monitor the treatment of prisoners. In addition to the NPMs, OPCAT allows for international oversight of places of confinement to ensure that torture and other abuses are not occurring.

As Quakers, we feel that torture is a moral and religious issue. We believe that there is "that of God" in every human being and therefore everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Torture does incalculable and long-lasting damage to both the torturer and the torture victim. Torture erodes our nation's moral fibre, diminishes our moral standing in the world, incites retaliation, and puts at risk the lives of Americans abroad and at home.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bombing a church is no way to usher in a New Year

Since I have started a new blog dealing with interfaith matters at, I had envisioned this blog as focusing primarily on the personal, the spiritual, and the Quakerly.

But the recent bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt, which killed 21 worshippers, was something I couldn't ignore. I felt it required a timely, thoughtful and heart-felt response from those of us committed to promoting universal religious values, interfaith understanding and peace. To help put this tragedy into perspective, I have written this response which I am circulating among interfaith organizations.

The most recent church bombing in Egypt is part of a deplorable pattern of attacks against Christians that have been taking place in predominantly Muslim countries.[1] In the fall, a church in Baghdad was bombed in Iraq killing 46 worshippers. [2] Acts of violence against churches have occurred in Pakistan, Malaysia and elsewhere. There is no doubt that attacks against Christians are on the rise.

People of all faiths deplore such violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Quranic teachings on war forbid the killing of civilians, especially children, and the destruction of houses of worship.[3] Muslims along with Christians have protested these heinous acts that violate the core of our Abrahamic religious tradition. Let us join in solidarity with Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere who are working together to foster understanding and end violence. [4]

As members of the interfaith peace community, let us take to heart and support this statement by the Christian Muslim Forum, a British interfaith organization:

As the Presidents of the Christian Muslim Forum we condemn the attack on the Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad on 31 October which resulted in the deaths of at least 46 worshippers, including priests. We strongly emphasise that any attack on Christians or any innocent people is not condoned by Islam, the Qur’an or the example of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, Islamic teaching safeguards the rights and security both of the innocent and of places of worship. The terrorists who committed these murders do not act or speak for Islam and should not be seen as representing Islam in any way. We also condemn the threats of suicide bombing by ‘The Islamic State of Iraq’ (an al-Qaeda affiliate) against the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt.

We also support the faithful presence of the ancient Christian churches in Muslim countries in the Middle East. These indigenous Christian communities predate the arrival of Islam in Iraq, Egypt and other countries and they have lived and worshipped alongside Muslims for nearly 1400 years. This faithful coexistence is the shared and valuable legacy of all Christians and Muslims and we strongly support their continuing presence.

We acknowledge that the good values of religion can become lost, or hijacked, at times of war, suffering, inequality and oppression and that it is the role and responsibility of religious leaders, people of faith and all people of good will to emphasise what is best in all our different traditions and world-views in order to build peace. This is the task and commitment that we have taken on through our leading roles in the Christian Muslim Forum and in other areas of our professional and religious responsibilities.

We therefore:

1. Urge all people of faith and goodwill to see beyond hate, hostility, extremism and terrorism and not judge any religion, especially in this case Islam, by the violent and destructive acts of those who claim allegiance to a religion but deny it through their actions.

2. Draw attention to the resources Christianity and Islam have in their traditions, scriptures and wise, courageous and gentle leadership to bring peace rather than war.

3. Ask all who associate religions with hatred, bloodshed and war to look deeper into their all-pervading messages of peace with God, neighbour and the stranger.

4. Commend all genuine peace-building and inter-religious initiatives as antidotes to extremism, violence and terrorism and pray that the example of friendship and peaceful living together is seen as more ultimately more powerful than acts of hatred.
5 .Ask the governments of Muslim countries to make every effort to protect their Christian communities where they are threatened by terrorists and extremists

6. Ask our own Government to recognise the legitimate case for asylum of Christians fleeing oppression, persecution, death threats and terrorism in Middle Eastern and other countries

The Christian Muslim Forum is currently planning an event, with Muslim and Christian partners, bringing together Christians and Muslims from the West, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries to explore joint action to support minority Christian communities and their peaceful Muslim neighbours in Iraq and elsewhere.’

Let us support such efforts at reconciliation and also acknowledge that some of the actions taken by the US government have aroused anger and caused a backlash against Christians in the Middle East. This has been documented in an article by Stephen Zunes, a Quaker professor who chairs the Middle East studies program at the University of San Francisco [5]. We need to insist that our government refrain from actions, such as war, occupation, and torture, that cause a backlash against Christians in Muslim countries.

It is sometimes alleged that Muslims do not express outrage or sorrow at terrorist attacks. To dispel this myth, I suggest reading this article in The American Muslim:
It should also be noted that organizations such as CAIR, MPAC, and even Hamas have denounced the bombing of churches in Egypt and elsewhere.

In conclusion, it was gratifying to receive the following response from the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California very soon after the attack on the Coptic church. The executive director of this Council is Shakeel Syed, who served on the executive board of the AFSC Regional office in LA. He is a dear Friend in every sense who dedicates his life to building interreligious understanding and peace. Dr. Hathout is a founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and an internationally recognized leader of the Muslim community.

Rahman nir Rahim - In the name of God the Most Beneficent the Most Merciful

(ANAHEIM- January 1, 2011) - The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California mourns the senseless killing of the Saints Coptic Church members in Alexandria, Egypt.

"We extend our most heartfelt condolences to the Coptic Christian community and abhor the heinous crime," said the Chairman of the Shura Council, Dr. Maher Hathout. He also asked the member Mosques to reach out to the Coptic churches in their area and offer moral support.

"We sincerely share your grief and stand in solidarity," wrote Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Shura Council, in a memo to the Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Los Angeles, His Grace Bishop Serapion.

The Islamic Shura Council is an umbrella organization of Mosques and Muslim organizations serving more than half a million Muslims in Southern California. Since 1995, the Council continues to foster the spirit and culture of "working together" at all levels in one of the most diverse and largest Muslim populations in the country.
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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dinner with Andre: "Out of Africa"

Tonight I went to a splendiferous birthday bash for Andre Van Zyl, a dear artist friend I know through the Parliament of the World's Religions. Andre was born and raised in South Africa, rebelled against his conservative Christian father by becoming a Vedantist and an artist, and now lives in Santa Monica with his charming and gracious wife Debrah. He is deeply involved in many spiritual as well as artist activities in the LA area. This poem came to me this morning as I went on my daily zikr [remembering God] walk.

Out of Africa

(for Andre)

You came out of Africa
out of deepest darkness,
out of piercing light,
out of your mind,
out of your heart
into this moment, into this place
into this circle of friends and family
into this amazing grace

circling the sun sixty times
you managed not to grow too dizzy
circling the One who is eternal
you managed to stay centered

confronting angry lions, angry elephants,
and angry critics
you still created beautiful art,
beautiful children, and a beautiful life

now we celebrate with you
not only your birth then
but also your rebirth now
in this moment always new
in this place always here
where we circle round and round
in wonder and delight
the One who made us
out of deepest darkness,
out of gracious light

AndrĂ© van Zyl is an award winning artist whose work appears in 30 museums internationally, and public collections. He is published in Resistance Art, South Africa. As a writer and author, an excerpt from his childhood memoir A Country Without Men, from the collection Stories From The Heart #2 - was featured as Amazon # 1 bestselling title. AndrĂ©’s book of poems – Notes of an Eskimo Dying of Thirst is due to be published Dec. 2010.