Monday, February 29, 2016

What I have learned from Judaism and my Jewish friends

When  Jonathan Zasloff, a new member of Orange Grove Meeting, shared his spiritual
Jonathan Zasloff
journey, I was deeply impressed by his questioning, thoughtful exploration of religious practices and concepts. What also surprised and delighted me was his humility, his ability to say: “I don’t know the answer.” A UCLA law professor who has earned degrees from Yale and Harvard and is now studying to be a rabbi, Jonathan has earned the right to be proud, but he doesn’t flaunt his credentials or his knowledge. In his commitment to be Jewish and Quaker, he reminds me of Claire Gorfinkel, another Orange Grove Friend who is Jewish and wrote a pamphlet with the intriguing title: “I have always wanted to be Jewish: and now, thanks to the Religious Society of Friends, I am.” Although Quakerism is deeply rooted in Christianity, Friends are not required to be Christian to be members of our religious society. As a rabbi is reported to have said, “Many of my best Jews are Friends.” Jonathan’s talk made me think of how my Jewish friends have inspired and challenged me to be a better Friend, and a better follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
1)      Good questions are just as important as good answers. I love the joke about the rabbi who was asked: “Why do Jews answer questions with questions?” He replied, “Why do you ask?” Outsiders like Jews and Muslims realize that many questions, especially those posed by the dominant culture, are “loaded” and need to be unpacked. The best example of this I can think of was a Muslim scholar who was asked t o contribute an article to Christian Century addressing the question: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” He began his response by asking: “Why is this question being asked?” Given how many Christians believe that "Allah" refers to some kind of Muslim moon god or even a demon, it was important to examine the context of the question before trying to answer it.
On a more positive note, open-ended questions can lead us to look more deeply into ourselves and into the nature of reality. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-seller with the provocative question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Quakers love questions and "queries" (open-ended questions) are part of our spiritual discipline. We recognize that what is important sometimes is not to have the right answers, but to wrestle with the right questions. This is also the essence of Jewish wisdom.
According  to the Pirke Avot, a collection of sayings by Jewish sages:
Find a teacher
to challenge your answers.
Acquire a friend
to challenge your questions.
Allow everyone the room to doubt:
the ability to challenge opinions,
even your own. (I:6, p. 7)
The German poet Rilke wrote about the importance of open-ended questions in a letter to a friend:

“...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

2)      When it comes to matters of Scripture, or God, or anything really important, there is no definitive interpretation or understanding. Jews often joke that whenever three Jews gather together, there are at least four opinions. Jews value diversity of opinion and argumentation, as evident in the Talmud. This monumental work of biblical interpretation includes dissenting as well as a consensus views on scriptural passages. There is no definitive interpretation, no dogma that must be believed. Quakers feel the same way. A formerly fundamentalist Quaker friend of mine summed up his views on fundamentalism by saying: “I still accept the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but now I am convinced that no interpretation of the Bible is inerrant.”

3)      Religion is not a matter of right belief, but of right action. Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy, is the hallmark of Judaism, and of Quakerism. Using the word “Reality” in place of God, Rabbi Shapiro translates a saying by Shimon the Righteous, one of the last sages, as follows:

The world stands upon three things—
Upon Reality.
Upon self-emptying prayer and meditation.
Upon acts of love and kindness.

4)      Sometimes the best answer to a difficult question is a story that helps us to see the situation in a new light. When asked how he felt about thorny question of Israel/Palestine, Rabbi Waskow responded with this story: “A group of Jews wanted to find the origin of idolatry so they journeyed all over the world but were unable to find it. Finally, they returned to Jerusalem and went to the Temple. There in the Holy of Holy, they found it. Sometimes, what we reverence as holy becomes an idol because we place it above the Living God that is everywhere present and beyond names and forms. That’s what is happening with Israel. It’s a wonderful country, a wonderful idea, but if we can’t criticize or question it, it becomes an idol.”

5)      God is invisible, transcendent and beyond our understanding, yet is personal and wants a relationship with us. The Bible is full of passages that move from the third to the second person, reminding us that what is most important is our relationship with God, not our metaphors about God. In Psalm 23 the Psalmist begins by describing God in the third person, using a metaphor that originated in a pastoral culture, but still resonates today. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…..” But at the emotional high point of the psalm, when the Psalmist is facing death, he dispenses with metaphor and directly addresses the Divine: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” This pattern is found throughout the Bible, reminding us that the Eternal One wants us a relationship with us.

6)      Prayer has many dimensions: gratefulness, petitioning, questioning, and listening for the “still, small voice” to guide us. All these aspects of prayers are present in Hebrew Scriptures, and especially Psalms, one of the best guidebooks to prayer ever written. It even includes a powerful call to silent prayer: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46). Among modern Jews, Rabbi Rami Shapiro is one of the best practitioners and teachers of silent prayer. His book Wisdom of the Jewish Sage: a modern reading of pirke avot is a treasure trove of wisdom, and my autographed copy includes his Quakerly advice: “May your words be grounded in silence.” Jews are not known for their silence and often joke about being so talkative, but this deep yearning for silent meditation has drawn Jews to practices like Quakerism and Buddhism. This yearning is beautifully expressed in the Pirkot Avot where Rabbi Jacob describes what Buddhists call “mindfulness practice.” 

If you are walking lost in wonder,
Empty of self, and mindful of Reality,
And suddenly you interrupt the peace to exclaim,
“How beautiful is this tree!
How magnificent this field!”
You forfeit life.

The intrusion of self
And the imposing of judgment
Separates you from Reality
And snares you in the net of words.
Be still and know.
Embrace it all in silence.

7)      We can be totally honest with God and express our feelings, our frustration, our anger, our disappointment, our despair, as well as our hopes and desires. We can even express our doubts and fears, and argue and bargain with God. Jacob, one of the founders of the Jewish faith, “wrestles” with God, and is given a new name, Israel (“the one who struggles with God”). My favorite Quaker example of this willingness to confront God is a story told by a woman who was so frustrated with her life she began berating God. For nearly an hour, she told God how pissed off she was with Him. Finally, her anger subsided and she heard a “still, small voice” whisper to her: “Finally, we can have an honest relationship.”

8)      I have learned to think of God as a “Thou” rather than an “It,” thanks in part to the Jewish theologian Martin Buber. To think of God as a “thou” means that the living God is not a thing, an "it,"  and cannot be limited. For God to be real and alive for us, God must be experienced as a Presence, as a still, small Voice, as a Reality seeking to engage with us. 

9)      Relationships are more important than the images or roles we assign to others. Buber’s “I-Thou” philosophy also applies to people:  When I think of the person I share my life with as just “my wife,” I have defined and limited her. When I dialogue with her as a “you,” she is infinitely complex: a human being, a woman, an activist, a child of God, etc, etc. True friendship or love begins when we are willing to experience others as they truly are, without judgment and without stereotypes,  in all their complexity, their mysterious “you-ness.”

10)   Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” includes the social as well as personal. The goal of the Jewish faith isn’t “inner peace,” it is peace/shalom/well-being with justice for all.

11)   God is on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downcast, the marginalized. This is what Jewish prophets cry down from heaven, and this voice is heard in modern Jewish prophets like Bernie Sanders. Recent historians like Doug Gwyn have come to see our Quaker faith as rooted not so much in mysticism (as Rufus Jones believed) but rather in the prophetic tradition. In his latest book, A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation,  Gwyn writes: 

"The Quaker movement emerged as a recognizable phenomenon in the North of England in 1652. It was a prophetic outbreak that drew together a variety of religious and political radicals in an experiential, socially engaged movement, which grew exponentially in its first four years and sustained rapid growth for two decades. It was apocalyptic in the sense that it proclaimed the coming of Christ by means of the light's revelation  in each person's conscience. The light had power to transform individuals and to gather communities that could challenge and overturn an unjust and violent society....It was a revolutionary movement: early Friends were willing to suffer and even die in resisting the oppressive order of their day, to testify to the power of Christ's light to transform their own lives, to transform the world, to spread the kingdom of heaven on earth and to renew creation (p. 96-97)."

12)   To whom much is given, much will be expected. Those who are successful have to account for how they use their wealth. The “prosperity gospel” is counter to everything that the Jewish prophets stood for, and stood up against.

13)   Jubilee economics. Perhaps one of the most controversial Jewish teachings is that we cannot own property, we are simply stewards accountable to the true Owner. “The Earth belongs to God, and the profits therefrom.” My wife, who is an Evangelical Christian, loves this teaching and explores it in the theological section of her book: Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Models for Affordable Housing. If you’d like to know more, I suggest you read her book. You may be surprised at how much Judaism has influenced Evangelical Christianity, and early. Far from worshipping “property values,” early Christians sold their homes and pooled the proceeds so that “there would be no poor among them” (Acts 4). This was the goal of Jubilee economics, the fulfillment of the Jesus’ mission: “I have come to preach good news to the poor….and the acceptable year of the Lord” (i.e. Jubilee).  

14)   Religion is not just about individuals, but also about communities. This runs counter to the American cult of individualism, which turns religion into a purely private matter (“Jesus and me,” or “my spiritual path”). Jewish prophets didn’t speak primarily to individuals, but rather to leaders and “nations.” In Matthew 25 Jesus demonstrates his profound Jewishness when he says that nations (not just individuals) will be judged by they treat the poor, the sick, the prisoners. “As you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

15)   Everything is holy. It is part of the genius of Jewish spiritual life to see that everyday objects (such wine, candles, food) can be sacramental. This aspect of Judaism is very appealing to Quakers, who have dispensed with the outward trappings of religion and focus on the sacred in everyday life.

16)   God requires us to take time off and enjoy life and give thanks. The idea of Sabbath, an obligatory day off, is a hard commandment for workaholics like me, but I am grateful for the Jewish understanding of why it is important to find time for rest and prayer. Rabbi Waskow discusses both the cosmic and political significance of Sabbath. On the 7th day of creation God rested from work, and commanded us to do likewise. This story tells us that rest is built into the very fabric of the universe. As living beings, we must breathe out, as well as breathe in. We must rest in order to be active. The prophet sees rest as a spiritual practice springing from prayer. “God, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are fixed on You: for in returning and rest will be our salvation, in gentleness and trust will be our strength” (Isaiah 26).This is the spiritual essence of Sabbath: fixing one’s attention on the Creator and finding life-giving peace.  

Sabbath also had a political component because it is a commandment given soon after the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian captivity. As slaves, the Hebrews had to work seven days a week, whenever and as much as Pharaoh demanded. Sabbath defies this tyrannical work requirement. God set limits to work and gave His people a day to rest, enjoy life and savor the delights of God’s creation. The political aspect of Sabbath is evident today in those who are struggling for paid vacations, paid maternity leave, and a return to the 40 hour work week. Unless employers are forced to give their employees time off, they usually don’t do so. The Bible teaches that time off for rest and recreation is not a self-indulgence, it is a God-given right. Sabbath is therefore profoundly liberating on both the spiritual and the political level. I’m grateful for rabbis like Arthur Waskow who keep both aspects of Sabbath in mind.

17)   Idol worship. Today we don’t worship statues of gods; instead we are tempted worship our pet ideas and our own creations. Seen in this light, the prohibition against idol worship a hard but relevant teaching. How tempting it is to become attached to one favorite “ism”—whether it is liberalism, socialism, or Capitalism—and lose touch with the living God and living people!

18)   We aren’t obliged to finish the work, but we cannot abandon it.  This saying from the Pirke Avot is a reminder that great tasks, like ending slavery, obtaining the vote for women, or abolishing war, can take more than one generation to accomplish.  For the sake of tikkun olam (“healing the world”), we need to work wholeheartedly, but not despair at the enormity of the task or slowness of progress. As Dr. King wrote, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Inspired by this quote, my Jewish friend Steve Rohde helped start an organization called “Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice”

I could go on and on, but this seems like a good place to pause and end this reflection with some questions:

·         What have you learned from the Jewish faith?

·         How are you putting into practice what you have learned?




Saturday, February 20, 2016

Living Sustainably and Sustaining Life on Earth: A Quaker Testimony to the Whole World

I am pleased that my Meeting (Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena) has come to unity about adopting the "Facing Climate Change Minute" that was approved last summer by Pacific Yearly Meeting and 40+ other Quaker groups and organizations. The modern Quaker environmental movement was birthed at Pacific Yearly Meeting in 1985, when Marshall Massey gave a stirring talk that led to the formation of Friends in Unity with Nature and Quaker Earthquake Witness, the national Quaker environmental organization.

It was also encouraging that FWCC (which represents the different branches of Quakers world-wide). has once again come to unity on a minute on sustainability, this time recommending specific actions that groups and individuals can take to help preserve our planet. Several years ago, FWCC approved the Kabarak call to Eco-Justice that was also very powerful, and deeply biblical, but a little vague on specific actions.

I write about this statement in a previous blog post describing my experiences at the FWCC gathering in Peru that took place  in January, 2016.

These statements on the environment are wonderful, but the time has come to take action. My hope and prayer is that Friends will become as active in facing the challenge of climate change as we were about addressing the moral horror of slavery. In many ways, the climate crisis is a bigger challenge since the future of human life on our planet is at stake.

IRM 16-20. Sustainability.  The Consultation on Sustainability, facilitated by Jonathan Woolley (Mexico City MM/Pacific YM; Staff, QUNO-Geneva), Rachel Madenyika (Staff, QUNO-NY), and Charlotte Gordon (Aotearoa/New Zealand YM) have presented a minute for our consideration:

 Living Sustainably and Sustaining Life on Earth

The Light of Christ has inspired Quakers throughout the generations.  As we gather together in Pisac, Peru in 2016, we feel this light stronger than ever in our calling to care for the Earth on which we live. It is calling us from all traditions: programmed, unprogrammed, liberal, and evangelical. It calls us to preserve this Earth for our children, our grandchildren and all future generations to come, working as though life were to continue for 10,000 years to come. Be ready for action with your robes hitched up and your lamps alight. (Luke 12:35, Revised English Bible)

Our faith as Quakers is inseparable from our care for the health of our planet Earth. We see that our misuse of the Earth’s resources creates inequality, destroys community, affects health and well-being, leads to war and erodes our integrity.  We are all responsible for stewardship of our natural world. We love this world as God’s gift to us all. Our hearts are crying for our beloved mother Earth, who is sick and in need of our care.

We are at a historical turning point. Internationally, the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals oblige governments to take action. Faith groups and other civil society are playing a major role.  As Quakers, we are part of this movement. The FWCC World Conference approved the Kabarak Call for Peace and Ecojustice in April 2012, while the FWCC World Office was a signatory to the Quaker statement on climate change in 2014 and divested from fossil fuels in June 2015.

We recognise that the environmental crisis is a symptom of a wider crisis in our political and economic systems. Our loving and well informed environmental actions as Friends, consistent with our spiritual values, must therefore work to transform these systems.

Many of us all over the Quaker world are taking practical actions as individuals and communities. At this Plenary, a consultation of more than sixty Friends from all over the world worked to build on these leadings with further practical action. The Annex attached to these minutes shows examples of what Friends are doing already or propose to do.

We must redouble our efforts right now.  We must move beyond our individual and collective comfort zones and involve the worldwide Quaker community and others of like mind.  Just as Jesus showed us, real change requires us to challenge ourselves to be effective instruments of change.  We can do more. 

On recommendation of this Consultation, and after some discussion, we adopt the following minute:
In this effort for sustainability, and mindful of the urgency of this work, this Plenary asks the FWCC World Office and Central Executive Committee to:

1.      Invest FWCC World funds ethically.

2.      Share Quaker experiences with other faith groups to inspire them to action, especially through the World Council of Churches.

3.      Seek ways of connecting Friends worldwide that are sustainable.

4.      Facilitate dissemination of training materials on sustainability issues for Quaker leaders, pastors and teachers.

This FWCC Plenary Meeting also asks all Yearly Meetings to:

1.      Initiate at least two concrete actions on sustainability within the next 12 months. These may build on existing projects of individuals or monthly meetings or they may be new initiatives. We ask that they encourage Young Friends to play key roles. We ask that meetings minute the progress and results, so as to share them with FWCC and Quaker meetings.

2.      Support individuals and groups in their meetings who feel called to take action on sustainability.

3.      Support the work done by Quaker organisations such as the Quaker United Nations Office and the Quaker Council for European Affairs to ensure that international agreements and their implementation support sustainability.

This FWCC Plenary Meeting asks individual Friends and groups (such as Monthly Meetings, Worship Groups and ad hoc groups within Meetings) to Share inspiring experiences of living sustainably on the new “sustainability webpage” of the Quakers in the World Website ( This webpage can be used as a source of ideas, inspiration and action.

Annex to the Minute: Possibilities for practical sustainability action

 from the Pisac consultation

Individuals can:

1.         Dedicate personal time to nature.

2.         Reduce consumption and use your consumer buying power to create change.

            3.         Cut down on meat consumption, be aware of energy costs in production and transport of all foods and methane from ruminant animals, support sustainable agriculture.

            4.         Travel – cycle, walk, use public transport or alternatives to private cars, keep air travel to a minimum.

5.         Grow your own food and plant trees.

6.         Be politically active in promoting sustainability concerns.

            7.         Share environmental concerns through books, publications, conversations, electronic media

8.         Reduce energy use.

9.         Use less water and harvest water.

10.       Make time for spiritual connection with God.


Monthly Meetings, Worship Groups and small groups within Meetings can:

1.         Live in a community, share housing, participate in a transition town movement.

2.         Educate yourself and others.

3.         Share transport and equipment.

            4.         Develop urban agriculture, community gardens, community supported agriculture, tree planting.

            5.         Love nature and encourage others to do so: we protect the things we love; get children out in nature; take care of nature around your meeting house (e.g., picking up trash/litter).

6.         Invest ethically and divest from fossil fuels.

7.         Ensure meeting houses are carbon neutral.

8.         Build alliances, seek visibility, approach legislators.

9.         Share sustainability skills.


Yearly Meetings can:

            1.         Support the sustainability actions of Monthly Meetings.

2.         Build solidarity with local people.

3.         Support Quakers in politics and international work.

            4.         Form support networks and alliances to make more impact – we can only do so much on our own.

5.         Invest ethically, including on sustainability issues.

6.         Practice what we preach.

7.         Discern and move concerns to action.

8.         Set targets for increased sustainability.

9.         Connect and share with other YMs, direct or via FWCC Sections and World Office


We recognise that different actions are relevant to different Quaker meetings in different parts of the world.

Rembering where we came from, welcoming the immigrants and refugees

Like over 50% of Americans, I am a descendant of immigrants who came to this land within 
My father and me around 1950
last hundred or so years. Approximately 13% of those living in America today are foreign-born. 17% are Latino. Over 12% of Americans came from Africa hundreds of years ago, by force, not by choice, but nonetheless have become an integral part of American life and culture. Except for the First People, who comprise around 1-2% of those living on what they call Turtle Island, we are all descendants of immigrants, many of whom were political and economic refugees.

My Greek ancestors started coming to this land at the end of 19th century, most of them moving to Chicago and New York. Nearly 400,000 came to the US during the first two decades of the 20th century. Most were fleeing political chaos and war in Greece and seeking economic opportunities in America. This huge influx of Greeks combined with millions of Italians led to a backlash against Southern Europeans that was very similar to today’s reaction against Latin Americans. The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed harsh restrictions on Southern European immigrant groups. Under that law, only one hundred Greeks per year were allowed legal entry into the United States.
My father was a Greek immigrant who came to the US around that time. He was only fourteen years old. When I hear about refugee children crossing our Southern border, I think of my Dad. What was it like for him to flee his homeland and come to the urban jungle of New York? He talked very little about these days, other than saying how hard he worked. Seven days a week, washing dishes and doing other menial jobs, with miserable pay and maybe a couple of hours off on Sunday to go to church. And there were no job protection for immigrants like him, no benefits.
He came from a beautiful jewel of an island called Andros, one of the largest islands of the
Left to right: my father George
with his brother Louie
Cyclades. Jill and I spent Easter there last year with my Greek relatives, and we absolutely loved it. Andros is known as the “island of sailors” since many shipping magnates settled there, and many of the young men of this island took to the sea because of lack of other job opportunities. My father came from an impoverished family of 17 children. He was smart enough to earn a scholarship to study in Athens, but the family didn’t have money for his room and board, so he got a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for New York. When he arrived, he “jumped ship” and went to live with his brother Louie. He spoke no English and learned what he could by reading newspapers. He became a voracious reader of newspapers and books, and although he had little formal education, he could hold his own in conversations with professors. In fact, that was his nickname in his family. If he had lived to see me earn a Ph D, I’m sure he would have been very proud.
My father moved to Princeton, NJ, in the 1930s where a few Greeks lived and most either owned or worked in restaurants. My father worked hard and kept a low profile until the War broke out. Like millions of Italians and Greeks, he was given a choice: be 

drafted or be deported. He joined the military and was sent to England where he met and
My father in uniform
fell in love with my mother, a Scottish woman who worked in a clothing factory in Manchester.  My father was an infantryman and fought in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He earned his citizenship the hard way. He received his citizenship papers in Berlin three weeks before the war ended. He then went back to the United States where he was joined by my mother, who was only 20 years old. They were married in 1946 and three years later I was born. A child of war who became an advocate for peace.
I was deeply moved by a recent film called “Brooklyn” which depicts the coming-of-age of young Irish woman who came to the United States and married an Italian at about the same time that my mother came to this country and married a Greek. It is a poignant story that shows hard it was to be an immigrant in those days, especially for women.
It is even harder to be refugee. In the past decade sixty million people have been displaced from their homes because of war, violence, and the current climate crisis.
Many people have opened up their hearts and homes to these refugees, but some have hardened their hearts. Sadly, some of these hard-hearted people profess to be Christians.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow noted, the Torah states 37 times that we are supposed to treat foreigners as if they were native born because our ancestors were once foreigners. He also observed very perceptively that the Bible probably had to repeat this commandment 37 times in part because people tend to become hard-hearted once they settle down and “own” property. We forget that “the earth is the Lord’s” and we don’t really own it. We are accountable to the true owner for how we use it.
In Hebrews 13 the apostle Paul reminds us that that strangers may be angels in disguise and should be treated as such. In a talk she recently gave for a group called “Jesus for Revolutionaries,” Alexia Salvatierra reminded us that the word “angel” literally means messengers. How different immigrants and refugees would seem to us if we saw them as God’s messengers!
Hospitality is the core teaching of the Abrahamic faith. Muslims, Christians and Jews all claim to be spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, a migrant couple who showed hospitality to three strangers. As a result, their descendants were blessed by God.

Greek islander giving a hand to a Syrian refugee
I began this reflection by describing how Greeks immigrants came to this land as economic and political refugees in the early part of the 20th century, and were mostly not welcomed. During the past few years hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees have come to the shores of Greek islands, and the people there have welcomed them warmly, even though Greece is undergoing an economic crisis comparable to the Great Depression. I am proud of these Greeks who are committed to practicing filoxenia, love of the stranger, instead of xenophobia, fear of the stranger. We Americans can learn a lot from these Greek islanders.
America has been blessed by strangers who have come to our shores with their dreams, their ambitions and their gifts. America has been enriched beyond measure by many cultures and diverse religions.  We should welcome them with open hearts and open arms, just like the Greek islanders. So I’d like to conclude this reflection with a song that we will be using at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade this year.

Abraham Journeyed to a New Country

BUNESSAN D ("Morning Has Broken")

Abraham journeyed to a new country;
Sarah went with him, journeying too.
Slaves down in Egypt fled Pharaoh's army;
 Ruth left the home and people she knew.

Mary and Joseph feared Herod's order;
Soldiers were coming! They had to flee.
Taking young Jesus, they crossed the border;
So was our Lord a young refugee.

Some heard the promise — God's hand would bless them!
Some fled from hunger, famine and pain.
Some left a place where others oppressed them;
All trusted God and started again.

Did they know hardship? Did they know danger?
Who shared a home or gave them some bread?
Who reached a hand to welcome the stranger?
Who saw their fear and gave hope instead?

God, our own families came here from far lands;
We have been strangers, "aliens" too.
May we reach out and offer a welcome
As we have all been welcomed by you.


Biblical References: Genesis 12; Ruth 1; Matthew 2:13-16, 10:40, 25:31-46; Hebrews 11, 13:2; Leviticus 19:18, 33-34
Tune: Traditional Gaelic melody ("Morning Has Broken")  
Text: Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email:     New Hymns:



Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Waiting upon the Lord daily... preparing for weekly worship

My friend Wendy Geiger writes:
I very much appreciate the "QuakerSpeak" video in which Arthur Larrabee emphasizes the importance of PREPARING for meeting for worship.  I've written about Friends arising on First Day, drinking cup after cup of coffee while reading the NYT and watching tv.  Then, they listen to NPR on the way to meeting and expect to go into a deep stillness for the next hour of meeting for worship.  Disconnect? 
She also adds these important heart-felt questions: "Do we infuse Quakerism in all aspects of our life?  Or, do we include Quakerism where we can fit it in our (busy, busy) life?"
I totally resonate with what Friend Wendy is saying. If we expect our First Day worship to be profound and meaningful, we need to prepare spiritually every day of the week.  If the only worship we do is one hour a week, we can't expect miracles. We get out of worship (or anything) what we put in. Of course, sometimes God's amazing grace fills us with joy and wonder and peace that we haven't earned or deserved. That's why we call it "grace." But God wants a serious, committed relationship with us, and is willing to do whatever that takes (including miracles), but to have the kind of relationship with God that brings eternal joy and inner peace takes time and commitment on our part as well as God's.
I think that Meetings get the vocal ministry they deserve (as my Buddhist friends would say). Spiritually committed Friends will receive spiritually deep ministry. Superficial Friends will receive superficial ministry. That may be a hard lesson for Friends who think they're weighty and like to point fingers at others who aren't, but I believe it's a spiritual law: "We reap what we sow." If we listen with the ears of the heart, we will hear deep truths even in seemingly superficial ministry. If we are caught up in our false selves (including the idea that we are Weighty Friends), we may well  think that even profound messages are crap.

The most profound ministry I've experienced hasn't been at my local Meeting, but at FCNL and at the FWCC gathering in Peru. These gatherings draw deeply committed, deeply spiritual Friends, and their ministry is usually Spirit-led and transformative.
During the recent FWCC gathering in Peru,  a Latin American pastor was preaching in Spanish, and young woman behind me broke down in tears. I turned around and asked her if she had a problem. "No problem," she replied, sobbing. "I'm happy. I'm crying tears of joy." Tear pouring down her face, she explained that she had realized for the first time in her life that there truly was "that of God" inside her and she was loved by God.  She had been raised a liberal Quaker and had been taught that other people had "that of God" inside them, but for the first time in her life she experienced the Inward Light in her own heart. This was such a powerful, overwhelming experienced she wept tears of joy. When I realized what she was experiencing, I wept with her, and so did my book-keeper Friend Lucy. Lucy is a birth-right Friend who came to FWCC for just such transformative moments. All three of us wept, feeling broken and tender and open to the Holy Spirit.
 I wonder: How often has the Holy Spirit opened hearts in most unprogrammed liberal meetings? In my experience, rarely, because most of us aren't willing to make a serious commitment to transformation. This young woman showed her commitment by traveling five thousand miles and spending a week in a sacred valley in order to be transformed. We expect to drive a few miles to Meeting once a week, sit in silence for an hour, and have a mystical transformation.
It can and does happen that we are transformed in our weekly worship. But the more we prepare ourselves spiritually, the more likely it is we will be ready for Spirit to transform us. That's why I am encouraging Friends to take more time to prepare themselves spiritually though daily spiritual practice, small group work--worship sharing, retreats, etc.
There is no quick solution to shallow vocal ministry or silent worship that is spiritually unfulfilling. Some Friends think that by eldering Friends who give messages, they can impose a deep, worshipful silence on a Meeting. That's not eldering, that's just intimidation. When people are afraid to speak for fear of being eldered, the Holy Spirit cannot do its work. The Inward Light grows dim. The soul withers. The spiritual life of the Meeting becomes dry as dust.  The silence of true worship is vibrant and expectant. Waiting for the Lord is the best antidote to despair caused by feeling alienated from God and one's true self.
Psalm 27 captures the joy of such expectant waiting:
"I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living, Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD!"
That's what real worship is about. To have faith that by waiting we can finally hear God's quiet whisper, the voice that guides us to where we need to go.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hannah and the militant atheist: a parable about vocal ministry

There have been some interesting responses to my blog post on vocal ministry. By divine coincidence, a thoughtful discussion of this topic also took place on-line, moderated by Mary Klein, editor of The Western Friend. You can read her notes at  Better silence, better vocal ministry

In response to my blog, one Friend wrote:
I remember when Ministry and Counsel at our Friends meeting worried that someone might speak ecstatically, so they put restrictions on meeting.
Imagine how George and some of the early Quakers would be treated in our modern meetings. Strictly censured, even kicked out.

Hmm. Ecstatic utterances not allowed at Quaker Meeting? What kind of restrictions, I wonder? Given that criterion, I suspect that not only George Fox, but Jesus Christ would probably not be welcome at some Friends' meetings!

Another Friend noted that early Quakers often gave long messages during meeting for worship and our modern preference for short messages is just that, a modern preference.

Most shocking, however, was the a comment that a "weighty Friend" made to a Friend I correspond with. He told her bluntly, "Most messages are crap."

Ok, that's speaking plainly. I get it. He's pissed off.  I was shocked, but not surprised by the crudity of this remark. Quaker hostility is seldom so overt: it usually comes out in indirect form, like sarcasm or passive aggression. 

I think a lot of hurt along with hostility lurks inside many Friends and needs to be faced honestly and tenderly. That's why it's important to have an eldering process that involves a number of Friends, as this Friend notes:
Our meeting does usually have two people meet with a person, but only after the whole committee considers the situation to determine what's behind the person's ministry. Often what’s behind it is a lot of pain; we need to be tender with the person while also protecting the sacredness of worship. We try to make it clear that we value the person, and that we want to help shape the ministry, not snuff it out.
I would add that eldering should not  be directed just at the person who is being complained about, it should also involve the person who is doing the complaining. Does this complaint come from a place of love and concern for the Meeting, or is it coming from a place of ego, judgmentalism,  and anger? If it's the latter, then the complainers need counseling and healing, and maybe even some truth-telling and tough love. (That's the Jesus approach, who was willing to say to those who criticized others: "Judge not lest ye be judged!")

Facing one's Shadow (the Jungian term for the parts of ourselves we don't like to acknowledge and often project on others) is hard work and requires a lot of commitment, as I have learned from my own experience with therapy, spiritual direction and a men's support group. 

I told the Friend who was distressed by this crude remark that anyone who says things like this is a spiritual light-weight, not a weighty Friend. I encouraged her to listen to her Inward Guide and speak her truth, even if some Friends are offended or vexed. 

A truly weighty Friend made it clear that if we speak truth, we may not be appreciated in our home meetings. 

He also made it clear that what "defiles" us is not something we put into our mouths, but what comes out of our mouths. 
“Listen,” he said, “and try to understand.  It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?”Jesus replied, “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted,  so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.”  (Mark 7.14–23)
Jesus was not afraid to speak truth even when it offended others. He wasn't rattled by the eldering of the Pharisees  because he experienced God within himself. 

I'd like to follow this Friend's example and tell a parable I heard when I first started attending Meeting in Princeton many years ago.

I was told about an elderly Friend named Hannah who was very pious. She prayed constantly, read the Bible every day, and was always thinking of God. Whenever she lost a needle and found it, she was thankful and praise God. 

One First Day a Friend rose up in Meeting and delivered a long tirade against religion, and announced that he didn't believe in God. Once his sermon on atheism was over, he sat down. A stunned silence followed.

After Meeting, members of ministry and counsel were concerned about Hannah. She didn't complain, but they felt she might be hurt or offended by this militantly atheistic message.

"How did you feel about today's message?" asked a member of M & C.

"I had no problem with it," replied Hannah. "God is strong. He can take it."

This is the kind of inner confidence and security that I believe Steve Smith was alluding to when he noted that truly weighty Friends are not perturbed when their ideas about good order or Quaker process or whatever else they revere as God are challenged.  If we have a strong sense of the Spirit within us, we aren't rattled by messages that don't suit us. When our sense of God within us is strong, we can be accepting and loving of others and their differences.  Through God's infinite grace, we can roll with the punches, and stay centered.

Finally, I'd to share a process for "eldering" that transcend the we vs. them/him duality: "This Friend is causing a problem and we have to fix it." Instead of singling out an individual for correction,the whole meeting became involved in a "meeting for learning." This not only seems very Quakerly, it works! We did something similar to this at a Meeting where I was clerk of Pastoral Care and had similarly positive results.

Some years ago, our meeting organized a longish religious education series about speaking in meeting. We had particular individuals in mind who we wanted to get this education, but didn't want to single them out. So we invited everyone who had ministered in last year; fifty people came. We asked them to share about a time when they really spoke from the Spirit, and then share about a time when their ministry didn’t go well, and then we asked them how they went about discerning when to minister. Worship did become richer and deeper in our meeting for a while after that.