Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Reflections on Lent and Easter from a Quaker perspective (Revisited)

 Over twenty years ago, I wrote a reflection on Easter from a Quaker perspective and posted it on my blog. It is not a systematic theology so much as an invitation to take a very special journey, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and early Friends. I hope this brief reflection encourages you on your spiritual quest for Truth.

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.)



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 a man named Jesus 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


Monday, February 15, 2021

Quakers and "Vocal Ministry Cops"

I had a recent experience that convinced me that the time has come for Friends to question how they  practice  “eldering,” a term with many meanings from educating and nurturing those inexperienced with Friends’ norms to correcting inappropriate or harmful behavior.

One approach to “eldering” is what I call “the vocal ministry cop.” I first heard that term when I became a member of the worship and ministry committee of Santa Monica Meeting. When we started receiving complaints about vocal ministry that some Quakes found objectionable, our committee reflected on what to do and decided we didn’t want to be “vocal ministry cops.” Instead of “eldering” individuals to correct their behavior, we convened an adult study on vocal ministry where we could address this concern collectively. This approach seemed to work pretty well.

Let me clarify what I mean by this term with an analogy. When someone plays loud music late at night in our neighborhood (and this happen from time to time since we are racially and ethnically diverse where people like to party), my wife and I have the right to call the police. But we choose instead to go to our neighbors and remind them in a kind and friendly way that it’s late and would they please close down their party. This usually works. We don’t call the cops because as Christians we believe that the prime directive is to “love your neighbor.”

When someone gives a message that seems inappropriate or offensive, the first step for Friends should be to approach that person directly and tell them how we feel. We should also be open to having a dialogue. That to me seems a way for us to deepen our friendship and our community.

However, some Quakers prefer to go directly to Ministry and Oversight. (The name has been changed, but sadly not its function.) The Committee then appoints someone to speak to the offending Quaker, much like a cop goes to a disruptive neighbor.

I know that this analogy will make some Quakers uncomfortable. Elders are not like police. They don’t carry guns or any other weapon. They are supposed to be kind and friendly. Well, yes that’s true. But their function is like that of cop. They are there to exert “friendly persuasion” so that offenders will conform to what some Quakers believe to be acceptable vocal ministry and/or behavior.

This summer I had an experience with a Ministry cop from Pacific Yearly Meeting. She is a very kind and dear friend who did her job as best she could. She called to tell me that four people had objected to my vocal ministry during Pacific Yearly Meeting’s annual session. The theme of Yearly Meeting was inclusivity and racial justice, and I spoke about how the police killings of African Americans in my neighborhood had impacted me personally. I asked my friend what Quakers had found objectionable about my message and was told that “this wasn’t my story to tell.” I was baffled by that remark. What did that mean? I was sharing from personal experience—an experience that had changed my life. I had met and grieved with friends and family members of African Americans who were my neighbors and had been killed and brutalized by police. I had taken part in actions to oppose police abuse. The elder from M and O couldn’t explain why “this wasn’t my story to tell. “ So I was left hanging with unanswered and unanswerable questions: What was so offensive in my message that these Quakers felt they wanted me to be “eldered”? Why did they feel that they couldn’t come to me and share their feelings and concerns? If they had done so, I would have gladly listened and would have welcomed their insights. I am sure that I would have become a better person and perhaps it would have also helped us to become better friends.

Jesus recommends this approach in Matthew 18;15-17. “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again” (The Message). If a fellow Quaker offends you with his ministry or some other behavior, the first step is to work it out in private.  If they’re unwilling or it doesn’t get resolved, then invite others, presumably members of ministry and counsel, for a clearness session. I can testify from experience that clearness session work and are the best practice I know to resolve interpersonal conflicts.  I especially want to commend Connie Green, who has written an excellent Pendle Hill pamphlet on Matthew 18, and is very skillful facilitator when it comes to clearness committees and conflict resolution.

The Dangers of Backbiting

Going to ministry and counsel to complain about someone’s vocal ministry or un-Quakerly behavior is, as I have suggested, equivalent to going to the police. If we “lodge a complaint,” it usually means that we lack trust and don’t feel confident that the other person will listen or respond appropriately. We may feel intimidated by that person, or contemptuous or angry. In these situations, I would hope that members of Ministry and Counsel would encourage Friends to follow the recommendation of Jesus: pray for Divine Guidance and wisdom and then speak to the person who has offended you. If that person is unwilling to listen or becomes defensive, then invite him or her to join you and others for a clearness committee where conflicts and disagreements can be resolved prayerfully.

In my meeting, it happens from time to time that people say negative things about others behind their backs, especially to members of M and C. This is not unusual and has been happening among Quakers since the earliest days of Quakerism. There is a word for this in the Quaker lexicon: back biting. A very old Quaker query asks: “Is love and unity maintained in your meeting, and are you free from back biting and tale telling?”

Back biting should be discouraged because it can have very negative consequences both for individuals and for the community. When a couple in my meeting started complaining about me behind my back, and I heard about it from M and O, I asked to meet with them so I could hear their concerns. I promised just to listen, and not be defensive. But they refused. As a result, their animosity grew to the point that it led to a incident of violence so shocking and painful I felt the need to seek trauma healing from a therapist. This wound affected not only me, but also many others in the community who witnessed or heard about it. Two years later it is still in the process of being healed and resolved.

The English visionary poet William Blake understood all too well how unspoken anger can morph into something dangerous and toxic. In “The Poison Tree,” Blake describes this process:

I was angry with my friend; 

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe: 

I told it not, my wrath did grow. 


And I waterd it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears: 

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles. 


And it grew both day and night. 

Till it bore an apple bright. 

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine. 


And into my garden stole, 

When the night had veild the pole; 

In the morning glad I see; 

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Like George Fox, Blake was aware that each of us has a dark side that needs to be brought into the  Light for healing and transformation, or it can be violent. That’s why it is so important to work through conflicts openly and not let them fester. Because I know from experience how dangerous and toxic unresolved anger can be, I am concerned and somewhat anxious that there are people in my community who feel such distrust or animosity towards me that they won’t even speak to me directly when they don’t like my vocal ministry. What is that about? And where will it lead?

Fruits of the Spirit: A Test for Vocal Ministry

Those who call the vocal ministry cops probably feel that the words that offended them were not Spirit-led, but ego-driven. Like most who rise to give vocal ministry, I try to follow the leadings of the Spirit, but how do I know that I have been faithful? I rise only when I feel compelled to do so by an inward nudging of Spirit and feel a sense of inward peace afterwards when I have faithfully given a message, but how do I know that I’m not deluding myself?

One test for authentic prophetic ministry is that some people will be uncomfortable, or even outraged, by one’s message, as happened to Jesus when he spoke truth to his home synagogue (Matt 13:57 and Mark 6:4). I take some solace when people are offended by my messages since I know that I am in good company. Many activists I know in the peace and justice movement have faced rejection by their own community and accepted it with good grace and even humor. Jesus said that we are blessed when we speak out for justice and people say bad things about us, for that’s how prophets have always been treated (Mathew 5:10).

Another test is that Spirit-led ministry is not “notional”; it springs from the heart and from personal experience and leads to positive action. In the case of the vocal ministry I felt led to share at YM, a Friend who heard it contacted me soon afterwards to learn more. I had apparently mentioned a program called CAHOOTs which intrigued her. This program originated in Oregon and sends in trained social workers and psychologists instead of armed police when incidents of domestic violence occur or when there are issues with homeless people. If this program had been in place in Pasadena, it would have saved the life of Reginald Thomas, a mentally ill African American father of five who was tasered to death by police not far from Orange Grove Meeting two years ago. When my therapist friend heard about this program, she became so excited she wants to get it started in Lake County. She’s such an amazing person I have no doubt that, God willing, she can do this.

Good results are not infallible proof that a message was Spirit-breathed. Nonetheless, I am thrilled that at least one Friend heard my heart and was led to take action that could make a difference and maybe even save lives.  And this what keeps me returning to Friends. As long as we have open worship, allow people to speak as Spirit leads them,  listen with open hearts and minds, and do what Spirit calls us to do, we are following in the footsteps of George Fox and Jesus and other enlightened souls. And I am convinced that path will ultimately lead us to the Beloved Community.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Work of the American Friends Service Committee in the West: a presentation by Sonia Tuma, Regional Director, AFSC West Region


Please join us online

ICUJP Friday Forum
February 12, 7:30-9:30 am Pacific

Roots for Peace

The Work of the American Friends Service Committee
in the West
Sonia Tuma, Regional Director, AFSC West Region

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For over a century - since 1917 - the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has worked to promote lasting peace and justice as an expression of Quaker faith in action.

Join us Friday and hear from Sonia Tuma, Regional Director for AFSC’s 13-state West Region. She'll discuss AFSC’s programming on immigration and economic justice issues in the Western U.S., including AFSC’s LA Roots for Peace program, working on food security issues in South Los Angeles.

Sonia TumaAs regional director, Sonia manages AFSC’s programming in the western third of the U.S.  The West region advocates and organizes to end militarism, achieve lasting and just immigration reform, and end mass incarceration, among many social justice issues.

Sonia has also been a researcher, educator, organizer, and activist for more than 25 years. A trained mediator and facilitator, she has worked with community and nonprofit groups to develop shared visions and creative, strategic programming toward social change.

Start your morning with us!

Reflection: Avon Leekley and Michael Novick
Facilitator: Dave Clennon
Zoom host: Susan Stouffer

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ICUJP Friday Forum 02/12/21
Time: 07:30 AM Pacific Time (US and Canada)

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Monday, February 8, 2021

Why Quakers don't thank each other.... Is this custom spirit-led?

 One of the Quaker queries that I most appreciate is the one that asks: “Do I live in thankful awareness of God’s constant presence in my life?” I feel that being in "thankful awareness" and expressing gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life. This includes gratitude not only for God, but also for the people around us., including those who annoy us!

That’s why I was disturbed when a Quaker committee I am a member of was discussing our accomplishments over the past year, and someone objected to the fact that people who did the activities were named.

“Why is that a problem?” I asked.

“Quakers don’t use names in committee reports.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s our custom.”

“I understand why Quakers don’t provide names during business meeting because we don’t want to identify who took which position. We want to stress unity. But why not name people who’ve done certain activities?”

“That’s our Quaker custom, just like we don’t thank people.”

“Why don’t Quakers thank each other?”

“That’s our Quaker custom.”

“That sounds irrational,” I said. “What’s the spiritual basis for not thanking people?”

Then someone suggested, “It’s because Friends should be motivated to do things by the Spirit, not in order to get credit or thanks.”

This made some sense, so I let it drop. I didn’t want to get into an argument over whether or not people who are guided to action by the Spirit still deserved to be thanked for choosing to follow the Spirit, so I just gave up. Not thanking people is a Quaker custom and it’s impossible to argue with Custom.  

For those who are open to questioning accepted beliefs and practices, I’d like to unpack the word “custom” and see why I feel it can get in the way of a Spirit-led religion. According to Webster's, a custom is a “traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.” Customs, in other words, are traditions. Jews had many customs in Jesus’ time, like ritualistically washing their hands before meals, or not healing someone on the Sabbath, that Jesus defied. Why? Because he wanted us to be guided not by custom, but by Spirit. Quakers took a similar approach and defied many of the customs of their day for the same reason.

Perhaps that’s why I find myself increasingly annoyed by certain Quaker customs.

Customs are to action what dogmas are to the Inward Light: external rather than heart-felt guides . Just as Quakers have rejected dogmas, we should reject customs that are not guided by Spirit. Let me explain with an historical example. When early Friends refused to doff their hats or use the honorific “You” instead of “thou” to those deemed socially superior,  they were affirming their deep belief in the equality of all people. These defiant affirmations of radical egalitarianism had deep spiritual meaning. Over time, these practices became customs and simply affirmed that Quakers were different from, and perhaps better than, others. Quakers gradually abandoned these customs as outmoded and “quaint.”

I think it’s time for Quakers to rethink how we treat one another, and why we feel it’s un-Quakerly to express thanks or appreciation, or “give credit.”

Gratitude is a core practice of the Abrahamic faiths because we believe that God is the origin of all good gifts—life, health, beauty, etc—and therefore deserves to be thanked. Even Buddhists, who don’t believe in God, recognize gratitude as a core spiritual practice. When I was a Zen Buddhist practitioner, I was taught to bow in gratitude to my Zen master, to my food, and even to my zafu (Zen cushion) before sitting on it.

As Quakers, we don’t thank God as openly and profusely as do practitioners of other faiths in part because many Quakers don’t believe in a personal God and in part because we don’t have a tradition of praise music and hymn singing. Whether we believe that God is personal, or Universal Goodness, or the Light, I hope that Friends can come to realize that we didn’t “earn”  the most important things in life, such as love, health, or even inner peace. Life itself is a gift beyond what words can describe, and therefore the most appropriate response to life is gratitude. When we are truly aware of life’s preciousness, expressing gratitude becomes heart-felt and Spirit-led. When we express gratitude to people, we affirm that we care about them and appreciate the divine within them. For me, this kind of gratitude is the heart of real community.

I am pleased to say that most Quakers I know ignore the custom of being unthankful in their daily life, and even sometimes when they are being Quakers. I hope that this custom will be eventually be abandoned by Quakers like the custom of saying “thee” instead of “you.” I also hope we will consider this query:

Do I live in thankful awareness of Friends and other people in my life and do I express my gratitude to them?