Thursday, March 28, 2024

A Quaker perspective on Lent and Easter

  

       I have reposted this reflection, written many years ago, because I feel it's especially important to reflect on the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, and how it impacts our lives today. As we witnessed the bloodshed in Gaza and in our parts of our world, we need to ask ourselves: What would the Prince of Peace do? Here are some of my thoughts as a Christian Quaker: 

Perhaps more than any other Biblical narrative, the story Christ's death and resurrection arouses profound uneasiness as well as hopes. Some may feel qualms about a holiday that has been associated with Christianity's most virulent anti-Semitic outbursts. Others may be turned off by the idea that a man "just like us" supposedly rose from the dead. Still others may be disturbed by the Easter story's unflattering picture of the human condition. It is no wonder that people try to trivialize this event by turning it into a matter of bunnies and eggs! Although it could be worse: this spring I saw a card with a group of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, their weapons blazing, urging us to "have a blast" on Easter.
       No matter how uncomfortable the Easter story may make us, and no matter how hard we try to avoid its message, it cannot be denied that the death and resurrection of Christ is crucial to an understanding of Christianity and also to the way of early Friends. Sooner or later we have to confront the meaning of the Crucifixion the way we must confront the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
       Like a Zen koan, the Easter story challenges us to reflect on questions beyond the reach of conventional thinking. Why did a man who called himself the Prince of Peace go into Jerusalem and deliberately provoke the authorities? If there is "that of God" in every one, why did religious leaders and their followers want Jesus to be crucified? Finally, what do we make of the fact that Jesus' followers not only believed that Christ rose from the dead, but were willing to stake their lives on this conviction?
       These tough questions deserve serious reflection because they challenge our customary beliefs and practices. Do we have the courage to face our inner demons, as Jesus did? Are we willing to take on those whom psychologist Scott Peck calls "people of the lie"? How do we respond to the reality of torture, genocide, and other unspeakable evils that plague our world? And what meaning do the death and resurrection of Christ have for our lives today?
       Over the past couple of years, I have made it a practice to reflect on these questions during the forty days preceding Easter. I should point out that, like most Quakers, I am not an orthodox Christian (though I happen to have been baptized once). I draw insights from Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Native people. For me, true religion is not about dogma; it's a way of life and an inner awareness that is available to people of all faiths.
       The Way is beyond words and names. Any attempt to define or to chart it is bound to be inadequate. But if we keep in mind Hiyakawa's observation that "the map is not the territory," we can learn from observing those who have walked the path before us

We can view the Easter story not only as an historical event, but also as a kind of spiritual map with signposts pointing us in the direction of Truth. Sometimes called the Way of the Cross, this journey can be broken down into four distinct stages:


  1. The temptation in the desert. Confronting one's inner 
demons. The Lenten experience.

  2. Entering Jerusalem. Professing one's inner truth, no matter what the price. "Speaking truth to power.”

  3. The crucifixion. Dying to self-will.

  4. The resurrection. Experiencing the new creation and the new life of the Spirit.


Temptation in the desert: confronting one’s inner demons. The Lenten experience.

Lent is associated with the fourth-century Christians who followed Jesus' example and went into the desert for a period of prayer and fasting as a way of getting into closer touch with God. The desert is a place where we encounter the Truth and the Truth encounters us. Desert spirituality means much more than getting out of the noise of the city into the silence of the wilderness. In the desert, life is reduced to the utter simplicity of "What Is." On the desert, there is no name for God other than "I exist." There is no place for diversions, distractions, luxuries or trivia. When Friends speak of "simplicity," they are recalling this desert experience.

Like the Hebrews who were called out of Egypt into the desert to wait for Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we are called to the utter simplicity of desert living, so that nothing might stand between us and the living God. The desert experience begins with the deliberate decision to deny one's physical pleasure to receive a greater spiritual treasure.

But Lent is more than just self-denial, it is also a time self-examination. Jesus went to the desert to confront the forces of darkness within himself. This is a journey that each of us must take if we want to know ourselves, and to know God. Self-examination does not mean a morbid fixation on our shortcomings; it means trying to be realistic-- acknowledging the failings that are really ours and then resolving to set things right.

For several years, I used to go out to the Nevada nuclear test site with a group of Friends for what was called "the Lenten Desert Witness." In early spring, as the wildflowers begin to bloom, the desert was surprisingly beautiful. Looking out over the blue mountains in the distance, it was hard to believe that just over the ridge a village of scientists and workers was busily planning the most efficient means to create weapons of mass destruction. Most of these people had no qualms whatever about what they were doing; many were no doubt church-goers.

Witnessing in the desert with like-minded Friends was a powerful spiritual experience. We ate, slept and prayed together. Many of us were arrested, manacled, and kept in holding pens by the state troopers. Sharing our feelings and our stories while hand-cuffed, we felt deeply connected to each other and to the source of Life.

We worshipped together under the open sky, acutely conscious that we were standing on holy ground, and that this ground belonged not to us, but to the Native People and to the Great Spirit. (Before beginning our vigil, we were given "passports" by local indigenous people, who were trying to reclaim their land.) During a time of worship, a woman confessed how deeply sorry she felt for the way that white people had desecrated this beautiful and sacred land. Her voice choked with emotion and her pangs of conscience flowed through the entire group. Finally, after a long and painful silence, a Native American woman spoke: "Our elders have heard your words, and so has the Great Spirit. And they forgive you." It was as if the Earth herself were speaking. No moment of worship has ever been more precious.

You don't have to go to the desert to confess your shortcomings and experience healing. One of the most important spiritual experiences of my life was attending the "Surrender Group" at Princeton Meeting. This group was started by Herrymon Maurer, a Friend whose translation of the Tao Teh Ching draws fascinating connections between Taoism, John Woolman, and Jewish mysticism. Each week we met to reflect upon "Ten Queries" that were based upon the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the queries that I remember best is, "Are you willing to take a fearless moral inventory of your life?"

There is a real power in conducting this kind of inventory, whether you do it alone or in a group. When we examine ourselves alone, however, we are apt either to wallow in vague, unspecified guilt ("I'm a terrible person! Poor me!") or to deny our guilt entirely ("I'm okay, the world's okay"). In a group, or with a friend, it is sometimes easier to be more specific and honest. Such honest acknowledgment of our shortcomings can profoundly change our behavior.

In the course of a vigorous self-examination, one discovers that just as there is "that of God" in each of us, there is also "that of the devil." During the time of Fox, the devil was often seen as something purely external. Fox resisted the temptation to see evil as something "out there," apart from oneself, that had to be combated, often by force of arms. Fox realized that by far the most dangerous demons are those we carry within us:

Yet I was under great temptation sometimes, and my inwards sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. And I went into Nottinghamshire, and there the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without were within, in the hearts and minds of wicked men. The nature of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc. The nature of these I saw within, though people had been looking without


Horrified by this glimpse of human evil that each of us carries inside, Fox asks:

'Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?' And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else could I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God (Journal 19).

This experience corresponds to what Carl Jung called "facing one's shadow." Long before Jung, Fox recognized that we must confront the dark side of ourselves before we can be of psychological or spiritual assistance to others.

Friends prefer talking about the "darkness" rather than about "sin," perhaps because this latter concept has been used to manipulative ways. The Catholic theologian Matthew Fox (no relation to George) once pointed out that the church invented sin so that priests could administer sacraments and thereby control people. It is for this reason that Fox (George, not Mathew) infuriated the 16th-century religious establishment by insisting that those who have given up self-will and are living in the Light are no longer sinners; they live in the state that Adam was before the fall.

The Puritanical sometimes use the concept of sin as a peculiar form of self-advertisement. John Bunyan, for example, wrote a popular book confessing (or was he boasting?) that he was "the chief of sinners." Nowadays, people go on television parading their sins in a parody of penitence. Such self-advertising guilt is not new, nor is it spiritually helpful. Some of Jesus' contemporaries "repented" with such ostentatious fervor that Jesus finally said, "Enough of this!" He instructed to keep their penitence and fasting as a private encounter with God, rather than trying to show the public how sinful (and therefore how holy) they were. As those in AA learn, we are wise not to make a big deal out of our misdeeds and our repentance.

As we mature in our spiritual life, we come to see our shortcomings in a larger social context and as part of a larger divine order. When mistakes are made, they are to be acknowledged and learned from. Just as we cannot achieve spiritual health alone, we do not become not spiritually sick alone. Each of us is interrelated. We each carry the seeds of war and social dis-ease inside ourselves. As Woolman notes in an often quoted passage,

"O that we declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the Light, and therein examine our foundations and motives in holding great estates...."

Once we have acknowledged our complicity with the society that fosters injustice, war, and numerous forms of neuroses, we can begin the process of healing not only ourselves, but also our community.

Entering Jerusalem: Professing one’s inner truth

In this reflection on Quakers and Easter, I consider how we sometimes need to risk being rejected in order to be faithful to Spirit's prophetic leadings. Several years ago, I had an experience that gave me a sense of what it means to be a prophet. The war in Iraq had broken out, and there were mixed feelings in my Meeting about how to respond, and so we had done nothing. After attending an event commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King,  I told Friends that I had gone to this demonstration with the intention to get arrested, but decided not to do so because I had an appointment with my tax accountant. I later felt guilty. I was not living in the spirit of Martin Luther King, but rather playing it safe like a middle class. I told the Meeting that over $500 of my tax dollars was going to pay for the war in Iraq and that was about the same amount that Friends give to support our Meeting. "If we don't do something to oppose war," I said, "What kind of Friends are we?"

After I gave this message, which was really a confession about my own feelings of inadequacy and guilt, an attender of our Meeting stormed out of the meetinghouse angrily. Another member sent me an email saying I was a "knee jerk liberal." It was not a pretty scene, but it could have been much worse.

I later realized that those who give prophetic ministry should not expect to be appreciated in their own Meeting. Certainly Jesus was not appreciated when he went to Jerusalem to share his radical gospel of Love.

This entry is about "speaking Truth to power in love" and was written fifteen years ago when I first became acquainted with a remarkable peace activist named Sis Levin, who at that time was working for the American Friends Service Committee. It begins by recalling the radical faithfulness and courage of early Friends:

In that year [1654] a large company of Quaker evangelists, not quite seventy in number, spread out through the kingdom in pairs like the seventy sent forth in Luke 10. Known as the 'Valiant Sixty' by modern Friends they began to take their message into all parts of the country. In the few years that followed many became leaders of the Society, and some were to die in prison....For some reason the first Quaker preachers at both Oxford and Cambridge seem to have been women. Each group was roughly handled. The seats of learning dealt out beatings for those who dared disturb their fragile tranquillity...(63-64)

At Brigflatts Meeting Anne Wilson stared accusingly at Sam Bownas and said, 'A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do at the end?' (135- 36)---John Punshon, Portrait in Grey

"George Fox is alive and well and living in Pasadena." This thought crossed my mind as I watched a film about Sis Levin, a woman who for a while was director of the AFSC's Middle East program here in Southern California. When Sis's husband Jerry, a CNN Bureau Chief, was kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon in 1983, neither the Reagan Administration nor CNN did anything to help; in fact, they tried to silence the families of those who came to known as the "forgotten hostages." After a long, agonizing period of waiting and praying, Sis finally found the courage to "speak truth to power." She didn't just write polite, carefully worded letters. Aided by Friends such as Landrum Bolling (former president of Earlham college), she took her case to the media, and to her own faith community. In the movie, she is shown squirming in her pew as Episcopal clergymen conduct a "peace and justice" service. Unable to stand it any longer, she rises and exclaims,

How can we talk about peace in Central America and other parts of the world and ignore what is happening in the Middle East, in the Holy Land, the source of our faith? 

As she passionately explains her concern, some shout, "Shut up and sit down," while others insist, "Let her speak." Leaving the church in an uproar, Levin rushed out. Neither she nor her church would ever be the same.

This kind of impassioned behavior was typical of George Fox and early Friends. By entering the public arena and speaking out from the depths of his heart, Fox felt that he was following in the footsteps of Jesus, who confronted the religious leaders of his time on their home turf, the Temple of Jerusalem. Nowadays few of us have the courage to take such risks. We prefer to withdraw into our cozy meetinghouses and meditate. We are reluctant to confront one another or the powers that be. "Comfortable" has become our favorite watchword. As a result, most of us are what Anne Wilson called "traditional Quakers."

Courage was the distinguishing characteristic of Quaker life in its spiritually vital early days. In the first decades of the Quaker movement, over 15,000 Friends were arrested and confined to horrible dungeons where many died. Others lost all their property and legal rights. Those who traveled around England spreading the good news of the Peaceable Kingdom came to be called "the Valiant Sixty, " and for good reason: most suffered persecutions comparable to those endured by Soviet dissidents. When Russian historian Tatiana Pavlova first read about early Quakers, what impressed her most was their willingness to run risks and make enormous personal sacrifices. As a Russian familiar with totalitarian repression, she found it incredible that a hundred and sixty-four Quakers signed a petition asking to take the place of those who had been imprisoned for their religious views.

When I encounter stories of such courage and faith, I wonder, "How does one get that kind of courage?"

I suspect that for most of us, it starts with small actions. It might be something as minor as refusing to sign a draft card or to take an oath.

There are basically two forms of courage: the first arising from a natural, and the second from a spiritual base. Both involve discipline. Natural courage is associated with the warrior; spiritual courage with the peacemaker and healer. Warriors live by a code that emphasizes courage, loyalty and duty. These virtues are essentially externally motivated, and so are their rewards: medals, public recognition, and "glory." A soldier's courage is not to be taken lightly, however. Gandhi used to say that one could not be a true peacemaker if one did not have at least as much courage as a warrior.

The courage of the healer and peacemaker springs from a deeper source, the power of love. As the Gospels put, "perfect love casts out all fear." Those who are motivated by love are willing to take risks that go far beyond the call of duty. They are sometimes willing to "lay down their lives for their Friends" even when their only reward is resistance, rejection, or even disgrace.

Evidence of this self-sacrificing love can be found in all spiritually centered activists. Woolman affirmed that he was "moved by a motion of love" when he worked tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed and met with frequent rebuffs from Friends. Sis Levin became a peacemaker first out of love for her husband, but finally out of a love of truth and justice. Working with Muslims who were victims of war, she learned to appreciate them as much as she appreciated Christians and Jews.

Not all acts of courage and love are as conspicuous and newsworthy. Many equally significant acts of faith go unsung and unnoticed, except by the Spirit that knows and sees all. It takes courage to face divorce or rejection and not become bitter. It takes courage to face a long-standing, festering conflict and continue to hope and work for reconciliation. It takes courage to face illness or the loss of a loved one and not lose faith in God's love. It takes courage to affirm the gospel of love and forgiveness in a world seething with violence, self-righteousness, and grievance-collecting. Perhaps the greatest act of courage is to face up to deep-seated problems in oneself and in one's faith community, and do all one can to bring about change.

The spiritual life of an authentic faith community is sustained not by rules and procedures, nor by traditions and customs, but by acts of courage and commitment that spring from love. If Jesus had waited till all his disciples "felt comfortable" with his decision to risk death in Jerusalem, if George Fox had waited until a committee gave its approval for him to launch his equally dangerous ministry, it is doubtful that these men would have been allowed to proceed. Every meaningful action entails facing up to the possibility of rejection and death.

The Cross

In reflecting on early Friends' attitude towards the Cross, I am reminded of what James Baldwin once said about the African-American experience of Christianity: "White Americans learned about the Cross from a book, but black Americans learned about the book from the Cross." The same may be said about Fox and early Friends: they did not learn the Cross from the Bible, but rather they learned about the Bible through the Cross. In the 17th century, thousands of Friends were arrested, tortured, and jailed for their beliefs. Despite incredible persecution, they did not lose faith in the power of love. Perhaps the most remarkable document of this period, or of any period, is a petition signed by 164 Friends and sent to Parliament in 1659:


We, in love to our brethren that lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and so straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons and houses of correction....For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us

...
Given the dangerous conditions of British jails at this time, it is hard to imagine a more striking application of Jesus' definition of love: "No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Clearly, the experience of the Cross was a life-transforming one for early Friends, giving them the strength to do things that we can scarce imagine doing ourselves today.

What, then, did the Cross mean to Fox and early Friends?

Like most people of his era, Fox took for granted the literal truth of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. He seems never to have doubted that Jesus Christ was the son of God, was nailed to a cross, and rose from the dead. What was highly unusual, however, is that Fox referred to the literal death and resurrection of Christ as an historical precedent for validating equality between men and women:

 

So when Christ was risen.... the women went first to declare the Resurrection out of death, out of the grave. Now, they said, 'certain of our company came and told us he was risen' (Luke 24:22). Certain women they were, disciples, learners and followers of Christ. This seemed as idle tales, but when they came into the belief of it, male and female believed: so both are one in Christ Jesus, and all praise God together.

According to Fox, the testimony of women regarding the Resurrection seemed like a mere fantasy to Christ's male (chauvinist) disciples. But because women were the first to experience and witness to the Resurrection, they became equally entitled to be ministers of the Gospel. This was a radical view at the time, but one that Fox believed was rooted in historical fact. As I will show later, Fox's open-minded approach to the Resurrection is at the heart of authentic Quaker understanding of the Christian story. ( Elizabeth Watson's attempts to re-tell the Gospel from the viewpoint of its women is in keeping with Fox's revolutionary approach to reading Scripture.)

Resurrection

 

Alana Parkes, a Quaker singer and musician, gave the following testimony about Easter in her album entitled "Grace in Your Face":


"A couple of years ago, I went on a Quaker retreat for Easter weekend. The purpose of this retreat was to consider Jesus' death and resurrection, to figure out what that meant to us, and to our spiritual lives...On the evening of holy Saturday, we gathered in the dark and prayed together, and tried to imagine ourselves as if we were Jesus' friends waiting in the darkness after his death and wondering what would become of us. As I sat there, I was overtaken by a powerful spirit. I felt as if I were one of his friends, as if I were one the the women who had been his disciples. And I felt this powerful sense that my friend had been taken from me and I cried and cried that night. As I sat with my friends and prayed, we turned towards the morning and considered Jesus' resurrection. In that moment my sorrow was transformed and I felt this incredible joy because I learned something new about death: when Jesus said I will not leave you, I will leave my Spirit and my Comforter will always be with you, I knew that was true, and that was true for me. And over the years I was able to cry not only for the death of Jesus, but of my friend Hunter, who died of AIDS when he was only 23 years old....I learned that Hunter hadn't left me, his spirit was with me. And that knowledge has carried me as two of my other friends were infected with this terrible disease. I know that when they pass on, God will take them in His arms and hold them...."

 

Alana helped to form a Quaker gospel choir whose lead musician, Frederick Evans, died of AIDS in 1994. Never have I heard an album so full of love and life and joy-- yet the specter of death was never far from the minds of its singers.

 

"AIDS is not only all around us, it's in the middle of us," Alana avows. "As scary as this is, we try not to hide from it....What happens if you stop hiding? When we sing, we lift each other up, and are lifted. We love each other very much and love is the tide that carries us. We are so scared, we are so blessed. Find some friends. Look at what is in the middle of your life and sing it..."

When I heard these words, and the music accompanying them, my heart opened up, and I wept tears of joy. I had just come back from taking a group of Quaker teens to an AIDS hospice center in L.A. The teens had served food and sung Christmas carols to the residents, and it was a very moving experience. During that time of sharing our feelings about AIDS and dying, we came closer together than we ever had before. It was a moment that none of us will ever forget.

Death, and the hope of resurrection, are things that we cannot hide from. How we respond to this mystery says a great deal about who we are, and how we live our lives. There are basically four ways that people respond to the mystery of resurrection: 1) They deny it completely (the skeptical approach) 2) They accept it as an article of faith (the dogmatic approach) 3) They regard it as a symbol (the Jungian approach) 4) They keep an open mind and an open heart (the experiential/existential approach). I would suggest that the fourth approach helps us to get in touch with the heart of our Quaker faith.

To deny the Resurrection entirely is to presume that one has certain knowledge and understanding of the universe and its laws. Such an attitude may seem "scientific" and rational, but it really isn't. A real scientist keeps a mind open to all possibilities, even the miraculous.

On the other hand, to accept the Resurrection as an article of faith means that one is relying on secondary sources--written words rather than a direct experience. The believer runs the risk of placing a distance between himself and what the Resurrection is all about. Such a blind-faith approach may also lead to authoritarianism.

The Jungian perspective appeals to the intellectually minded because it assumes that the Resurrection was a psychological rather than physical reality. The problem with this approach is that we usually do not stake our lives on mere symbols. If the Resurrection is simply an archetype, like that of the mythological Osiris, we can contemplate its meaning with calm detachment. There is no rolling away of the stone, no frantic women running from an open grave in amazement and terror, and no smell of fish when Christ communes with His disciples.

For those who staked their life on the Cross, the death of Jesus was not a mere symbol. A real man suffered and died on a real cross, just a real men and women have suffered and died for the Truth throughout history. What, then, can we know for certain about the resurrection?

The most honest, the most scientific, and perhaps the most Quakerly, answer is: we don't know. And we never will know for certain. Even if tape recorders and video had existed in the time of Jesus, there would still be an element of doubt. There is a limit to scientific and human knowledge.

What we do know is that there was something about Jesus that keeps pushing away the stone from his tomb. Generation after generation, lives are changed, incredible risks are taken, and painful sacrifices are made, because people know in their hearts that Christ lives and is dwelling within and among us.

This, to me, is the real miracle of the Resurrection.

Many leaders have used personal charisma to persuade their immediate followers to "martyr themselves." But Jesus was somehow able to influence people who never knew him to make the ultimate sacrifice. Paul knew Jesus only from a vision, yet this hard-headed, pious Jew was willing to gamble everything, even his life, on the Resurrection. Why? Because he knew in his heart, from deeply felt personal experience, that Christ cannot die, that Truth cannot be destroyed, and that each of us can, through our faith, can become embodiments of the Truth.

Thousands of Quakers and millions of Christians have followed Christ's example and willingly, even cheerfully faced persecution and death.

I don't know if I have that kind of faith. Reflecting on this question, a very honest Quaker woman once said to me, "I haven't been tested yet."

Although I haven't had to face the ultimate test, I have, like most of us, been "quizzed" on my faith by daily challenges. Hardly a day goes by that I don't have to choose between trust and cynicism, between taking risks and playing it safe, between holding grudges and forgiving those who have hurt me. Each day I must choose between affirming and denying Life. Sometimes I make the wrong choices, and live to regret it But when I choose Life, when I choose to love instead of hate, to forgive instead of judge, to give of myself instead of hold back, I feel a joy and power that is impossible to put into words.

Meister Eckard once said, "The important question is not whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but whether Jesus is born in my heart today." That is also the most important question about Easter. What does it matter if Jesus was resurrected two thousand years ago if I am not resurrected today?

Perhaps that is why the Quaker song puts the Christ story in the first person. In singing Sydney Carter's "The Lord of the Dance," we are obliged to identify with Christ:

 

The whipped me and stripped me and they hung me on high,
And they left me there on a cross to die.
They buried my body and they thought I'd gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I'll live in you if you'll in me.
'I am the Lord of the Dance,' said he.

As I reflect on the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, I feel immense gratitude that  Jesus, who was fully  human as well as fully Divine, was willing to gamble his life on the divine potential of us flawed human beings. When a disciple said, "Show me the Father," Jesus responded, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." This statement has often been interpreted to mean that Jesus uniquely embodies the image of God. Such a view is in a way very comforting. It says, "I don't have to do any redemptive work. Jesus will do it all for me." But Jesus did not let his disciples off the hook that easily. What he made clear is that no savior, and no priest, and no paid minister can "do" religion for us. We must work out our salvation for ourselves, in fear and trembling, in love and hope, because just as God can become like us, we can become like God. Jesus says in a seldom quoted passage (it's far too revolutionary!): "To tell you the truth, anyone who trusts in me will not only do what I have been doing, he will do even greater things..." (John 14:12). What a staggering thought! If we trust in the divine potential within us, we will not only equal, but surpass what Jesus did. 

This is too radical an idea for conventional minds, but it has been the revolutionary faith of Friends since the time of Fox, and it has inspired incredible acts of faith, courage, and love. The redemptive power of God--the eternal Christ---lives in each one of us. And if we are willing to speak our truth, risk rejection and remain faithful to the Light, we will come to know what James and William Penn meant when they spoke of the "crown of life":

Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love God--- James 1:12

 

Friday, February 9, 2024

“Let’s Try What Love Can Do…” Reflection at ICUJP

 

“Let’s Try What Love Can Do…”

William Penn

 

Since Valentine’s Day is coming up soon, I thought I’d talk about love. Not the romantic kind, though I see nothing wrong with romance. But what I’d like to talk about this morning is the love that motivates me and others like me to be advocates for peace and justice. The Christian tradition distinguishes between three kinds of love: eros (erotic love), filia (friendship) and agape (spiritual love). Agape is what motivates us to make sacrifices for those we care about. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, the greatest kind of love is laying down our lives for our friends. Jesus also tells us to love our enemies. This isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible and ultimately, it’s the approach that works best.  Dr. King explains that “loving your enemy” doesn’t mean having warm and fuzzy feelings towards a Ku Klux Klanman or white supremacists, it means treating them as you’d like to be treated, with respect and with as much as kindness as you can muster. Such an approach can change hearts and minds and turn an enemy into a friend. It’s difficult but not impossible. And there’s lots of evidence that it works.

When I first became a Quaker in the 1980s, I was fearful that Reagan was leading us into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. I didn’t know what to do until I met a Quaker woman named Janet Riley who was reaching out to the Russians and trying to create understanding through a joint book project. I became involved with this project and got to know and befriend Russians and it changed my life. When we went to the Soviet Union, we carried postcards which had a quote from William Penn in Russian and English that said: “Let us try what love can do.” We were part of the citizen diplomacy movement that encouraged Gorbachev and Reagan to meet and seek ways to reduce the threat of nuclear war. And these efforts were successful. The Cold War ended without bloodshed, and a process was put in place that reduced nuclear weapon stockpiles by over 50%.

After 9/11, I also felt fearful. I was afraid that we were be led into a world-wide war against terrorism that would have dire consequences both at home and abroad. As I prayed, a phrase from the Gospel came to me: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). I took this to heart and was led to reach out to my Muslim neighbors and get to know them. Little by little I was led into the interfaith peace movement and to groups like ICUJP.  I feel that the interfaith peace movement has had a significant impact and is being tested once again.

After the brutal attack of Oct 7 and its horrific aftermath, I asked myself the question: How do I put my Christian commitment to love and my Quaker commitment to peace into practice? And how do we respond collectively as peace makers? I think that the first step is empathy. Take time to reflect and pray for the victims of war who have lost their lives, their homes, and their hopes for the future. We can also pray for the perpetrators and enablers of violence who have lost their humanity by dehumanizing others. We can pray that our leaders and leaders on both sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine will take off their blinders and see that violence only begets more violence. As we pray, we may be led to take further action since, as James says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Here are some actions that I recommend:

1)    We can let our elected officials know that we want a ceasefire and de-escalation of violence so that humanitarian aid can flow into Gaza and alleviate the suffering, and so both sides can begin to negotiate a just and humane solution to this conflict. I recommend going to the website of the Friends Committee on National Legislation: fcnl.org.

2)    We can take part in a interfaith prayer vigil like the one that takes place every Monday from 5:00-7:00 pm in front of Rep. Judy Chu’s office (at 527 S. Lake near Ten Thousand Villages). We are calling for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation. This vigil is being organized by a grassroots collective that includes Pasadena Mennonites, All Saints Episcopal, Jewish Voice for Peace, So Cal Islamic Center, PCC Anti-War Club, and others. Our gathering always ends with a powerful prayer.

3)    We can join an Interfaith Study Group like the on that meets monthly here in Pasadena, sponsored by the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Pasadena Jewish Temple, and All Saints Church. On Jan. 21 I attended a session called “Bearing Witness Through Compassionate Listening.” Two skilled facilitators from New Ground—a Muslim woman and a rabbi—led us through a compassionate listening exercise that enabled us to share our feelings about what’s happening in Israel/Palestine so that we could build trust and understanding.

4)    We can reach out to our Jewish and Muslim neighbors and friends and be compassionate listeners. Many are experiencing grief, fear, anger, and despair, and they need to know that we care.

5)    We can reach out to our Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. I am helping to plan event at the First United Methodist Church of Pasadena, where a group of Muslims gather for worship each Friday. We plan to have a time of fellowship and an iftar together sometime in March.

These are just a few ways that we can put our faith and love into action during these challenging times. I’m confident that we at ICUJP will continue to find ways to be instruments of healing, justice and peace.

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

IfNotNow: Reflections on Diverse Jewish Solidarity with Palestine and Organizing for #CeaseFireNow

 

Please join us online

ICUJP Friday Forum
February 9th, 7:30-9:30 am Pacific  


IfNotNow: Reflections on Diverse Jewish Solidarity with Palestine and Organizing for #CeaseFireNow

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Meeting ID: 817 9154 4399
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Event Description: 
For 10 years, IfNotNow has been organizing within the Jewish community to realize a future for justice and peace for Palestinians and Israelis, focused on the dire need to end the Occupation and Israel's apartheid system. Since October 2023, the urgency and resonance of this work has never been clearer, as people across the world have been moved by the Jewish Left's presence and action in solidarity with Palestine and to demand a ceasefire, which right here in Southern California has included vigils, marches, civil disobedience actions, teach-ins, and so much more.

We will reflect on this inspiring organizing and community building, and share how anyone can support this Jewish-led movement of solidarity, action and transformation with Palestinians. We will also explore IfNotNow's vision for uplifting the voices of Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi (BIJOCSM) leaders within the Jewish Left and the broader Jewish community, and INN's commitment to racial and economic justice within Southern California and all of the communities in which we live.

Join the conversation with our speakers:


Diedra Robinson is a Latine Jewish activist and Alabama native with over 20 years experience as an educator and trainer in public, private, and professional sectors. She has a passion for history, language, and ancestry, with a focus on the intersection of European colonialism and Mexican-Jewish identity.
 
In her volunteer work with IfNotNow Los Angeles, she has helped facilitate a dedicated environment for Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi (BIJOCSM) individuals. In addition to diversifying traditionally-white spaces, she regularly speaks about antisemitism and Christian hegemony in both religious and secular arenas.


Matthew Hom (he/him) is a Jewish labor, immigration, housing justice and racial justice organizer with Chinese and Ashkenazi roots, who aspires to help build diverse multiracial and interfaith coalitions for justice throughout Southern California. He pursues that work as the Faith-Rooted Organizer in Los Angeles and Santa Monica for CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice).

In his volunteer work with IfNotNow Los Angeles, he helps to lead the chapter's Partnerships Committee, so as to develop and strengthen IfNotNow's resilient relationships with partners in the Jewish, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities and throughout the broader movement ecosystem. Matthew also participates in the Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi (BIJOCSM) leadership team at IfNotNow, and is committed to pursuing racial justice within the Jewish Left and the broader Jewish community.



IfNotNow is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class movement of American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel's apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all Palestinians and Israelis. We are fighting for a vision of Jewish liberation which recognizes that our safety is intertwined with the safety of all others. 

Why I support term limits in Pasadena

 

I support a charter amendment that would set term limits in Pasadena because I believe that term limits would foster a more inclusive and accountable City Council, one more likely to represent the majority of Pasadena residents rather than vested interests.

Our current system reinforces the status quo. Two members of the Pasadena City Council have been in office for more than 20 years. While their institutional memory and experience are valuable, and they have served the city well in many ways, I don’t believe it’s in the best interests of the city to have incumbents so entrenched it is hard for challengers to compete. In California, incumbents win 90% of the time at the state level and 80% at the local level. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a serious campaign, which is a huge advantage to incumbents.

Our city is changing, with renters finally having a voice and institutional power thanks to Measure H, which was decisively passed by voters. Yet entrenched incumbents opposed rent control, even though a majority in their district supported it.

My argument is not that these entrenched incumbents are doing a bad job or are corrupt. What I am arguing is that having term limits would open up the Council to new people with fresh perspectives and innovative ideas. I was very impressed by the challengers who showed up for the candidates forum that Making Housing and Community Happen organized on Jan 31. I would like to have heard from the incumbents, but they chose not to take part. This to me is worrisome since four years ago when we organized a candidates forum, 13 out of 15 candidates showed up and all submitted written responses to our questions. None bothered to do so this cycle. Are they not showing up because they feel they are going to win anyway? Will this be the new normal in Pasadena?

We need elected officials in our city willing to meet with concerned citizens who want to know where they stand and why.

The state of California adopted term limits of 12 years iin 1992 and it has worked fairly well. This limit gives elected officials time to learn their job and acquire expertise in law-making, but it also encourages change. It gives challengers with new ideas a chance to compete for office.

What is the sweet spot for term limits in Pasadena? Should it be 12 years or 16 years? I would lean towards 12 but am okay with 16. What I see as a problem is allowing elected officials to stay in office 20 or more years. That’s just too long!

 

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO DEMOCRACY IN PASADENA?


In 2020 Making Housing and Community Happen organized its first candidate’s forum focusing on homelessness and affordable housing. Over 150 people showed up at the Orange Grove Quaker Meetinghouse and 13 out of 15 candidates took part and answered questions. All of them provided written responses which we published on our blog. This was one of many such candidates forums that took place in Pasadena at that time. It was exciting to see vibrant discussions of important issues. Democracy was thriving at the local level.

Flash forward to 2024. MHCH planned a Zoom candidates forum for Jan. 31, 2024, and sent out invitations to all the candidates multiple times during the preceding month. We even went to a City Council meeting and handed the invitations to incumbent candidates politely inviting them to attend. None of them took part in our forum or sent us written responses to the questions we sent them. (We heard from  Gene Masuda’s spouse that he had to attend a meeting of the Legislative Policy Committee,)  Over 90 people registered for our candidate’s forum and heard five challengers, but not the incumbents. One must wonder: what has happened to our democracy in our city in the last four years?

One explanation that comes is the egregious example of presidential candidate not showing up for debates because it doesn’t benefit him politically. I hope this isn’t becoming a new normal in Pasadena. A properly run candidates forums is an opportunity for candidates to engage in a serious discussion of important issues, for the benefit of the public.

This was true at the MHCH’s forum on Wednesday, Jan. 31, with nearly 90 registrants and 5 candidates taking part: Rick Cole, John Boyle, Jonathan Horton, Brandon Lamar, and Allen Shay. Our questions required candidates to explain how they plan to address the homelessness and housing crisis and we learned about them from hearing their responses. You can access this candidates forum by going to makinghousinghappen.org/events.

Back in 2020 there were so many candidates forums, and they were so well attended, that some of the candidates complained it was taking up too much of their time. This year there were only a few forums, and often only challengers showed up. This lack of responsiveness is becoming a growing concern. A reporter told me that it is like pulling teeth to get elected officials to respond to interview requests these days. It didn’t used to be that way. In the past most were willing and even eager to meet and share their opinions. Something has changed in our city, and not for the better.

When elected officials don’t show up at public forums and respond to policy questions, the public learns about their views from slick political mailers or op eds instead from their thoughtful responses to questions posed in a public arena.

It is puzzling why some candidates decided to ignore our invitation since we are a nonpartisan, faith-rooted organization that has 1,700 subscribers on our mailing list. Eigh  local organizations have partnered with us, including the Clergy Community Coalition, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, POP!, NDALON, Pasadena Tenants Union, Friends In Deed and over 30 congregations, including the Salvation Army, First United Methodist Church, First AME Church, the Pasadena Mennonite Church, and many more. This summer we organized a bus tour of affordable housing in Pasadena and 38 elected officials from the San Gabriel Valley attended, including four mayors. We have a large following and a reputation for fairness locally, and nationally.

Why would candidates not be willing to show up and share their views with us so we can share them with the faith community and others concerned about homelessness and affordable housing in our city?

As a faith-rooted organization, we believe in redemption and a second chance. It is not too late for candidates to send us their responses which we are happy to publish on our blog and circulate in our newsletter. The public deserves to know where the candidates stand on these important questions.

1) What concrete steps would you take to end homelessness in our city?

2) What policies do you support that would create more affordable housing in our city?

3)  Now that rent control is part of our City Charter, what will you do to make sure that tenants in our city are protected and treated fairly?

4) What steps would you take to support federal and state laws requiring cities to “affirmatively further fair housing” and ensure that there is affordable housing in all parts of our city?

5) Now that SB 4 rezones religious and college land for affordable housing statewide, what would you do to make sure this bill is implemented in our city and how would you support religious institutions and colleges interested in having affordable housing built on their underutilized land?

6) Are you in favor of a dedicated fund for affordable housing either through a transfer fee (as Culver City and LA have done), vacancy tax, or some other means?

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Our Christmas Letter 2023

 

Dear Friends and Family

Our wedding vows affirmed that the “Prince of Peace brought us together for a purpose greater than we can imagine” and
these words proved prophetic. Five years ago we were led to start Making Housing and Community Happen, a nonprofit dedicated to God’s vision of a world free from war and housing insecurity: “Everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree will live at peace and unafraid, and into ploughshares turn their swords, nations shall learn war no more” (Micah 4:4). Our little nonprofit has thrived and accomplished great things, for which we thank God.

Sadly, however, our world has not taken to heart the message of the Prince of Peace. We grieve along with the people of Israel/Palestine, Ukraine and other parts of world who have lost loved ones to wars. Father Issa Thalijeh, an Orthodox priest in Bethlehem, recently said: “These are very, very sad times. But the message of Bethlehem and the message of Christmas, which is the message of peace, is more important than ever.”


Grateful for the love of Jesus that has transformed our lives and is transforming our world, we send our love and best wishes to you this Christmas! We thank God for the gift of family and friends who have enriched our lives and made this year very special.

Here are some highlights of 2023:


¨ Traveling to the Dominican Republic for a special gathering of Jill’s mission, Mission Door, which she has been
part of since 1977. We loved Santo Domingo, especially the plaza filled with families, jugglers, live music and more, next to the stunning Cathedral of Santa MarĂ­a la Menor built of coral, begun in 1512 and completed in 1550, in continuous use ever since. This city was founded by the brother of Christopher Columbus and was the first European city in the Americas.

¨ Traveling to Greece to visit Anthony’s family and historic sites: Olympia-where the torch is lit; the cave of St. John the Revelator in Patmos; the amazing cliffside monasteries of Meteora; sites like Ephesus associated with St. Paul and more! We traveled with our friends Carolyn and Sylvester Williams and Anthony’s sister Elizabeth and Anthony's cousins Alexandra and Peter, who hosted us at their home in Saronida, a coastal city south of Athens. Alexandra arranged a special memorial service honoring Anthony’s father, aunts and uncles in the church on the island of Andros where Anthony’s Dad was born.

¨ Celebrating Jill’s 70th birthday—she still can’t really believe she is 70, except for all the aches and pains telling her it’s true.

¨ Watching movies like “The Burial" with Jamie Foxx, “Blue Miracle” with Jimmy Gonzalez, and “The Chosen” series with a group of friends from First United Methodist Church of Pasadena (FUMC).

¨ Relaxing and having fun with Jill’s sister Jana and her husband Dwight who have been visiting from


Mexico/Washington State. We enjoyed fabulous Christmas programs put on by Azusa Pacific University at Lake Ave Church, Pasadena United Methodist Church (which we attend regularly), and First Baptist (where we were married 12 years ago!). What a blessing to be in a city with such beautiful sacred music honoring the birth of Christ!

¨ The birth of Tatum, Jill’s grandnephew; following the travels of Sarah and Andrew (who were married this year); and feeling incredibly blessed to be related to Jana and Dwight’s 8 children and their families, as well as to Emily and Demetrius, Anthony’s nephews.  

¨ Celebrating the fifth anniversary of our nonprofit, Making Housing and Community Happen, at New Life Holiness Church in the heart of Pasadena’s African American community, where we also celebrated the completion of the N. Fair Oaks Vision Plan, which, if approved by our City Council, will ensure a bright future for this neglected area, a once-thriving African American neighborhood.

¨ Celebrating the passage of SB 4, the bill that rezones religious land and nonprofit colleges for affordable housing statewide, which we have been working on for three years. Woo hoo! And the launching of our Congregational Land Apprenticeship program where teams now forming in TX, CO, WA, and Nor Cal.

¨ Joining hundreds of Christians, Muslims and Jews each Monday at Rep. Judy Chu’s office asking for a ceasefire in Israel/Palestine (both sides).


¨ Finding a wonderful gardener and working with him on a delightful garden which gives us veggies and abundant fruit, reminding us of God’s abundance and endless love.

¨ Visiting Donna Shook, Jill’s Mom, each week in her board and care—she is now 93! She has late stage Alzheimer’s and ready to be home with the Lord. Her art is in galleries across the US, check it out here: https://www.donnashookwatercolors.com/

¨ Overcoming bedbugs that invaded our home while we were on vacation(see our poem).

 

We are looking forward to the New Year and a much-needed 5-month sabbatical starting in May. We love our work with MHCH, but we feel led to take a time of for rest and renewal. Jill has been doing intense housing justice work for 23 years. We are grateful to Bert Newton and our staff for stepping up to the plate to carry forward the mission of MHCH during this time of transition.

Love,

 Anthony and Jill