My 25th Quaker Anniversary

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
God who?
What do mean, God who? Your Creator. The plan for the rest of your life, The Ground of All Being. 
God who?! I tell ya, kids these days...

Today is actually the 25th anniversary of my first Quaker meeting. I know it is today because the first time was in 1991, on the weekend of the Michigan-Notre Dame football game, in Ann Arbor.

That’s more than half of my life now. It almost didn’t happen.

Twenty-five years ago, I had just graduated from college. I spent the summer working on campus, awaiting my internship with the Fourth World Movement to begin in October. One day in early September, the head of the department said to me, “You’re interested in the University of Michigan for graduate school, right?” I said yes, maybe, sort of. She offered me her plane ticket for that weekend because she was sick and couldn’t go to some professional meeting in Ann Arbor. Another professor in the department suggested I could stay with her in-laws who lived there. I worked up the courage to call these people and ask and they said yes, I could stay with them for the weekend. I tried calling different departments, and didn’t get any answers, but I decided to go anyway. (This was before the internet was accessible to folks like me.)

On Friday morning, I woke up late because something was wrong with my alarm clock. I nearly gave up, but a housemate suggested I call the airline right then and see if they could reschedule me on a later flight. Turned out, if I left right then, there was a chance I could catch the next flight from DC-Detroit. I got all dressed up and took my briefcase, hoping I could pass as "Dr. Beth Soldo." (This was back in the days when you didn’t usually have to show ID at the airport.)

In Ann Arbor, I finally realized why none of the professors had returned my calls. It was the weekend of the Big Game and students were rioting in the streets. On Saturday morning, I walked into a dress shop and my eyes started watering. The saleslady said it was probably the lingering tear gas that had been used the night before to get the students to go home. The university was closed down and most of the professors were out of town.

On the Saturday night, Mary, the lady I was staying with, asked me if I would like to go with them to Quaker meeting on Sunday morning. She was very nice; I didn’t have any other plans, and I had been on a spiritual search for some time. So I said yes.

On the bedside table in their guest room was a little book, “The Faith and Practice of the Quakers” by somebody I’d never heard of (Rufus Jones). I decided to quickly read a little bit so I would know what I was getting myself into. I was intrigued. The book said that Quakers believed in non-violence, simplicity of life, and the equality of women, including preaching in worship. And their whole central practice was about listening to God. Not just for the radical fringe, but for everyone.

In the morning, Phil (Mary’s husband) said he had decided not to go to meeting that morning because he was getting ready for an audit by the IRS. I said something sympathetic and he said, “It’s okay. It’s happened before.” I was shocked. Audited more than once? That seemed terrible, I hadn’t heard of that before.

So anyway, I went to Quaker meeting, and I had a profound experience in worship and a good time at coffee hour, and I was hooked.

When I got back to DC, I looked for the nearest Quaker meeting and found that I lived within walking distance of the meetinghouse. Which was a good thing because there was no bus that could get me there early enough on a Sunday morning. I had actually been near it many times, but if you’ve ever been to Friends Meeting of Washington, you know it’s on this little side street and you’d never know it was there unless you were looking for it on purpose.

From then on, I discovered that I could get up on Sunay mornings with no problem. And I’ve never really looked back. Other stories have come and gone in my relationship with meeting for worship, but I’m still going, pretty much every week, and sometimes more often than that.

Also, when I got back to DC, I mentioned to my co-worker that I felt badly for her in-laws, what with being audited repeatedly and all that. She laughed and said, “Oh, it happens every year. They are war tax resisters and so they don’t pay their taxes and the IRS comes and takes it from them anyway.” That was the first I had heard of such a thing.

A few months later, I was a regular attender at 15th Street Meeting in New York City, and dating another attender. :-) One day I was in the little library/bookstore at the front of the meetinghouse. I have the idea that I was just standing inside to get out of the cold. But at least I was browsing the shelves while I was standing there. I happened to notice the surname of the couple I had stayed with in Ann Arbor on the back of one of the books. I looked more closely and sure enough, it was the same: Phillips Moulton, the editor of John Woolman’s Journal. My brush with Quaker fame, and I didn’t even know it. Later that year, I wrote them a second thank you note to thank them for taking me to meeting for the first time and changing my life forever. For them, it was just a simple, natural gesture of hospitality. One of many, I am sure.

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My Three Words for 2016

This is an annual exercise invented by Chris Brogan. You can read more about it at http://chrisbrogan.com/3-words-2016/
My three words for 2016 are: Grateful, Deep, Invite.

Because I want to remind myself, frequently, to be grateful for the many blessings in my life, instead of resentful. Resentful of what I have and what I don’t have.

I know that in many ways, I have been blessed in this life. From my loving and stable parents, who are both still alive and still married to each other, to my education, my health, the house I live in, the people I live with, and this extraordinary job I have. But sometimes even blessings can be hard work or stressful or conflict with each other. So, even when it’s hard, and into every life some rain does fall, I want to remember to be grateful: to God, to my husband, to all of you who read this blog, etc. My life is better because of you/them. Thank you.

Because I have been spread too thin over the last year and a lot of my life has been necessarily shallow. So I want to go deeper this year, starting with deeper rest. Last year, I took all my vacation days but really it just meant I was working from home. I didn’t do a good job on my sleep hygiene, so I want to go to bed on time more often. Good sleep makes everything better, and regular hours mean better sleep. 

Most of my reading was children’s fiction. I did read one whole grown up book and I loved it. Otherwise, I only read Facebook, poetry, Twitter, snippets of theology, and a lot of online articles about feminism, racism, management, and Adele. I don’t know if I’m willing to change this or not.
In my spiritual life, I think I need a silent retreat. I haven’t done one since 2004. So sometime in 2016, I think it’s time.

At work, because of a variety of circumstances, I have been doing too many different things, none of them as well as I’d like. But circumstances have changed again, and I need to recognize what that will free me up for. Getting deeper rest will make it possible to go deeper in all the rest of the areas of my life. (And how blessed I am that I get to make choices like this, which reminds me to be grateful, see above.) This also brings me to my third word.

I spent quite a while thinking that my third word was going to be let. As in let go, let God, let other people help. I need to remember that, most of the time, I’m not the only one who can do things. But I also don’t want to shirk my responsibility, or abandon other people to just get on with it.

At work, I want to invite more people into this dance with God, and the Religious Society of Friends, and me. One of the fundraising maxims I live by is, “Invite people into the kitchen.” This comes from a story that Kay Sprinkel Grace (one of my mentors) tells about Berthold Brecht once saying that the reason he chose one place to eat over another was not that the one didn’t have a delectable menu, but that the other invited him into the kitchen. In one place, he was an honored customer; in the other, he was a participant. I know which I prefer.

At home and in my local Quaker meeting, it is part of my role (parent, nominating committee) to organize other people to do the things that need doing. But my kids are old enough to make more of their own decisions, and at meeting everybody has other commitments too. How can I invite them into the work in a way that is encouraging and honoring and effective?

And I want to keep having guests at our house. I love dinner parties. I like introducing people I like to each other. I like cooking elaborate meals and playing board games and talking to people until way too late. (Not every night. See sleep hygiene, above.) This is my idea of deep fun.

So I want to try not to order people around nor guilt them to do things, nor freeze them out, but to invite them into all the fun I’m having in this blessed life of mine - at this amazing job, and my wonderful Quaker meeting and at my dinner table. Maybe even around the dishwasher.

So those are my three words for 2016. It’s funny how my three words for 2015 aren’t wrong now, but they aren’t what I need now, as much as they were a year ago. But when I look at the ones before that, Encourage, Long, Grind for 2014, and here for 2012 and 2010, I start to recognize the patterns of my life. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

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My three words for 2015

The end/beginning of the year is a great time to find people reflecting on their lives and writing about their commitments. This morning, I was grateful to read Bono’s A-Z reflections on 2014. Most of the buzz is about his bike accident and his broken arm. But I was personally struck by his quote from Nietzsche, that “to do something great requires ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.”

This is probably the big lesson for my life right now.

For five years now, I’ve been inspired by Chris Brogan’s “My Three Words” exercise. I haven’t always written about it on this blog, but some years I have. http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/search?q=my+three+words

This year my three words are: True, Sustainable, Brave

I want to be true to my word. More reliable, dependable, consistent. And this means I have to be more honest with myself and others about what I can and can’t do.

And I want to stay true to the vision I have for my life and for the Religious Society of Friends, like carpenters use the word true, like Peggy Senger Morrison’s metaphor of God’s Love as a plumb line.

I have to keep seeking ways to make my life and my work sustainable. Managing my time, my energy, my resources, my happiness, to hold up over the long haul.

Life is not a sprint. Building a family (marriage, kids, aging parents, etc) and homemaking is a long term project. Being a real part of a local meeting is not something I can put off indefinitely. Taking time for health care and mental and physical strength building and stretching are necessary along the way, not just “when this [day, week, month, year, event…] is over.”

My job is not a sprint. Did you know that, at 3 and a half years, this is already the longest I have ever held a single job? And now I’m in the process of making plans for the next five years, not for my departure in the next six months or anything like that. It’s a little scary, and I’ve realized it means I can’t run flat out for the next three years. I’ve been working on this balance for the last eight months or so, but I have a long way to go to figure out how to do the best I can for as long as it takes.

And this word also leads to thinking about the world, and fossil fuels, and social justice, and what is possible in my lifetime and the long-term prospects for life on Earth.

I want to have the courage of my convictions, to lead confidently when that is my responsibility and opportunity, to do scary things when that’s my job (at home or at work), to finish things and say they’re done for better or worse, instead of letting them wobble on. I want to have the courage to admit my mistakes and correct course, and to say no when the opportunity is not right. And I want to encourage other people to be brave, about following their leadings, about telling me the truth, and encouraging others in their turn.

All of these will require the grace of God, and Jesus as an example to follow and as the Consoler, as I move forward, day by day and moment by moment, this year and for as long as I may live.  

So what are your three words for 2015?

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Why I Really Went to Bible Study This Morning

One time a journalist supposedly asked a bishop, “Do you really believe that prayer changes things?” And the bishop answered, “Well, when I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't.”

The painter Picasso supposedly said, “Inspiration comes, but it has to find you working.”

This is a long story.

I went to Bible study at my new meeting for the first time today. That’s two and a half years since I started coming here, for those who are keeping track at home. Over the last 15 years or so, when I might have been interested in going to Bible study, mostly I have said to my husband, “That’s okay, dear, you go. I’ll stay home and bring the children to meeting for worship later.” And really, it was fine. But now I realize we are in a new phase of life – our children could walk themselves to Meeting without us if they had to, and I can go to Bible study if I want to.

So yesterday, Chris and I went to a daylong conference organized by our new yearly meeting for Friends interested in Ministry and Worship. Really, we went as a favor to the organizer. We stepped in at the last minute to lead an afternoon workshop on adult religious education. (We showed a Nooma film with Rob Bell, among other things!) But in the morning, we were talking to another Friend from our new meeting about the Bible study he was planning to lead today and the blueberry coffee cake he was planning to make, and I said, hmm, maybe I should go.

Last night Chris and I talked about the logistics, and it turned out that the boys were willing to go early if they could get a ride and have some blueberry coffee cake, so we decided to all go. Then just before bed, Chris informed me that the group was reading the Gospel of Thomas, and I was skeptical. I haven’t studied the ordinary Bible enough, do I want to start on the Gnostic Gospels too? I decided I was just really tired, and that I ought to go, because it’s my meeting community not because of whichever book they’re reading. So I said, well, I’m not setting my alarm. If I wake up in time to go, that’s great, but if not, I’m going to sleep as long as I need to.

But lo and behold, I was wide awake and ready to leave by 9:30 am. We got to the meetinghouse, got some coffee and a choice between banana-nut or blueberry-orange breads. Yum. Then I had to ask Chris, so where does this group actually meet? He pointed to the room under the stairs at the back of the kitchen. There were five of us for Bible study today, and the reading was interesting and the worship-sharing was interesting, but I think now that’s not really why I was meant to go today.

I had never fully been in that room before. I didn’t know there was a lending library in there. I had only seen the historical books in the library room upstairs. There were a lot of good books in the collection. On the shelves across the room from where I was sitting, I saw a book I’ve been wanting to read for a couple of years now, called Sustaining Our Spirits: Women Leaders Thriving for Today and Tomorrow. It was recommended to me by Mary Ellen McNish, one of the authors. So that was cool.  And when I walked over to look more closely, I found another book that I really need to read right now, called Leading from Within: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead from the Center for Courage and Renewal (Parker Palmer’s outfit). Here’s a poem that I really needed this week:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

--Wendell Berry
But the real reason I went to Bible study this morning is because I have to show up for the things that are happening at my meeting. I have to say yes to the long form improv scene that is the life of my spiritual community. Worship this morning was so full for me. Full of new insights and old lessons and bubbling over with ideas. I needed that. I needed Bible study this morning. I needed the workshop yesterday afternoon. I need the community that gathered there, and here. I need to say yes to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, not just no to all the things that feel like distractions from my job and my family life.

Thy will, Lord, not mine.

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A ministry of encouragement

I love opportunities to get together informally with Friends – this was the original basis of the convergent Friends dinner parties I organized a few years ago. In the last year, the Quaker Revival and Nursery of Truth had some of the same characteristics of taking advantage of the presence of a visiting minister to gather local Friends for worship and conversation and a shared meal. I think the most important part of these gatherings is the opportunity to share our joys and concerns with other Friends, some familiar and some new faces, and the encouragement we take home from them, knowing we are not alone in walking the Quaker path.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with several small groups of Friends while traveling for work. In each case, the gathering was around 15 people from multiple monthly meetings in a local area. In each case the conversation somewhat naturally turned to the future of the Religious Society of Friends. And the message I was given to share with the group in each case was
“Do not be discouraged.” 
I understand that the state of the Religious Society of Friends and of any particular local group can be discouraging. I think that is par for the course. In life. At least in this lifetime.

So if Quakerism  and Quakers are just going to be discouraging, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is perseverance. Forgiving 70 times 7 times. And coming back, and showing up, and not letting the tedious or the insidious or the pompous get you down so much that you give up and go away and don't come back. That is the Tempter speaking to you: telling you it’s not worth it; these people will never change; there’s a better group out there somewhere.

Just as God and grace frequently become present to us through other people, Evil becomes present to us through other people, sometimes in the most banal ways. C.S. Lewis said that better than I can, but he was right. Evil is not always grandiose. Even the biggest evils, for example, apartheid, are made up of a lot of small pedantries.

This is different from Way Closing. There can be a sense of rightness in something ending. People, and all animals, die. Campaigns end. People change religions. Meetings in a particular place are laid down. This can be rightly ordered. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between this and giving up prematurely. That’s advanced discernment, for sure.

In any case, this is not a new phenomenon.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged*
Take it to the Lord in prayer 

That's an old song, written by Joseph Scriven in 1855. Isaiah 42 was written long before that, and it's a whole chapter on the same theme.

As far as positive advice for Friends who are feeling discouraged, I have two thoughts. One is that we have to encourage each other, in living rooms and at kitchen tables, in meetinghouses, on street corners and in the pickup line at preschool. This is one of my favorite parts of my calling to ministry, which is further enabled by my current employment, but certainly didn't start with getting hired and I doubt will end when the paychecks do. If you know someone who is doing good work, encourage him/her and be encouraged by her/him. It's not actually all that complicated, and it's really important.

I actually think this is my personal answer to what the Religious Society of Friends needs right now. On my better days, I practice a ministry of encouragement. I aspire to humbly and boldly follow in the footsteps of Margaret Fell as a nursing mother of Quakerism. If you have ever felt that you weren’t getting enough encouragement among Friends, consider whether instead God is calling you to encourage others.

Second, and here I'm cheating a little because this is really seven things, read Chuck Fager's article, The Seven Ups, courtesy of Western Friend magazine, and follow his advice:
Show Up.
Read Up.
Speak up.
Ante up.
Smarten Up.
Toughen Up. And
Don’t Hurry Up. 

Keep up the good work, all of you.

*I wanted to quote this song in the title of this post, but I found that I had already used the most relevant line as a title of a previous blogpost. Here is a set of other blog posts by me referencing the same song: http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/search?q=take+it+to+the+lord+in+prayer [This was just a simple search, but I think it produced a fascinating cross-section of this blog.]

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Cups of Tea and Hammer-strokes

I may be suffering from a lack of ordinariness. Most of my life, I have wished for exciting things to happen to me. And now that they are happening, I miss the simple things that I don’t have time for. Like making jam. Gardening. Sewing. Teaching First Day School. Serving on clearness committees.

Recently, I was at an international committee meeting that was hosted by Friends in a thriving meeting in a small town. I was really touched by the obvious care and concern and interwoven nature of their personal lives and their meeting life. It made me think of two passages on marriage that I love, in Catherine Whitmire’s book, Plain Living,

“We thank God, then, for the pleasures, joys and triumphs of [life together]: for the cups of tea we bring each other, and the seedlings in the garden frame; for the domestic drama of meetings and partings, sickness and recovery; for the grace of occasional extravagance, flowers on birthdays and unexpected presents; for talk at evenings of the events of the day; for the ecstasy of caresses; for gay mockery at each other’s follies; for plans and projects, fun and struggle; praying that we may neither neglect nor undervalue these things, nor be tempted to think of them as self-contained and self-sufficient.”
from London Yearly Meeting, 1960.

And a poem by Ellen Sophia Bosanquet, from 1938:

If truth be told,
It was not priest, who made us one,
Nor finger
circled with gold,
Nor soft delights when day is done
and arms enfold.
These bonds are firm,
but in death-storm
They may not hold--
We were welded man and wife
By hammer-strokes of daily life.

[Bold emphasis mine]

I think these two images, the kind gestures of the cups of tea we bring each other, and the hammer-strokes of daily life, are both key to marriage and to meeting-life.

It takes time and active participation to be part of a meeting, just as marriage takes work and attention. It’s the same drudgery of washing dishes or making a budget work. The important conversations (and cups of tea) at the kitchen table late at night or in clearness committees for marriage or membership. The misunderstandings, getting hot under the collar, practicing forgiveness and receiving forgiveness, year after year. This is what makes a meeting or a marriage.

Any marriage is part of a family made up of marriages, and part of a wider community. This is where we learn that while every marriage is unique, it has a lot in common with other people. Likewise, a meeting needs the family of yearly meeting, and a wider community of Friends, where we sometimes learn other ways of solving our problems and sometimes we learn just to be grateful for what we have, and the problems we don’t have.

I don’t think I could do the job I have now without the grounding of 17 years of being part of San Francisco Monthly Meeting, the support and the hammer-blows of our daily life together. I think I need to be more connected to my new meeting, to stay fluent in Quaker practice, and to be a coherent, spiritual human being, in order to continue to be a blessing to the wider family of Friends.

I know I couldn’t do my job without the ongoing support and dedication of my husband. I have also learned a lot that is useful in this job from being a mother. I am blessed. I am grateful.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

I don't know Rob Bell. But I'd like to thank him for his work. Thank you for writing books that I like to read. But thank you even more for writing books that my 15 year old son likes to read and that we can talk about afterwards.

I first heard about Rob Bell in 2006 when he appeared in a series of Nooma films. I arranged to show a series of these short, postmodern films about God at San Francisco Friends Meeting after reading about how Gregg Koskela had shown one at Newberg Friends Church.

Velvet ElvisThe first one of his books that I read was Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. It's a reminder of all the different ways people have been Christians and how there can be more than one way to follow Jesus just like there is more than one way to paint a picture of Elvis. (Just re-reading pieces of it while writing this blogpost was inspiring all over again.)

Our copy of SexGod: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality has about the most boring cover you could imagine. But it is a beautiful work of thinking and writing on the inside. I hope my sons will read this one too. (For those of you who worry about these things coming from an Evangelical Christian, as far as I can remember, it doesn't talk about same gender relationships. Neither condemning nor affirming. It is clearly heteronormative but fairly progressive about male-female roles in heterosexual relationships. If you can translate from that to your own situation, you might like it.)

Drops Like Stars HardcoverSomebody gave us a copy of Drops Like Stars, about creativity and suffering. It's beautiful, but I didn't really get it. But eventually, I figured out that it wasn't written for me. Me who likes to read all the words, the writer, the know-it-all, the girl-who-always-raises-her-hand-in-class. It is designed for people who think like visual artists. You know who you are.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
All of this came up because Chris brought home Bell's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Chris read it, then I read it, then our 15 year old son read it while in meeting for worship the other week. [For more on teens reading in worship: part 1 and part 2] Bell asks why we still talk about God and how we have to be/get to be open to new ways of talking about God and deal with the both/and nature of much of the discussion. Then Bell explains that he thinks that God is with us, for us and ahead of us, and then why this all matters in this day and age. Right on, brother.

I don't actually agree with everything that Bell writes, but pretty close. And I find his books to be a very engaging and inspiring conversation partner and conversation starter. I asked my son if he thought other young Friends would be interested in reading and discussing it and his eyes got big and he said Yes. So let me encourage other Friends to bring this to the attention of any youth group or any mid-week study group - it's a fine way to get into the discussion about what we actually know or believe about God.

Love Wins HardcoverAs usual, my timing is off regarding big moments in the blogosphere. I finally read Bell's 2011 book
Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. This caused a huge controversy a couple of years ago in Evangelical circles but I didn't actually read it until I checked it out of the library last week. (I was a little busy in 2011, and did not have the bandwidth to argue much about theology just then.) It has a lot in common with If Grace is True and If God is Love by Phil Gulley and Jim Mulholland. Bell just issued a new version, Love Wins for Teens which I don't quite understand because I think the original is pretty accessible for teens, but maybe the new pink cover will appeal to a different demographic?

So the last thing I want to write about is the rockstar pastor phenomenon. Rob Bell has been one of the biggest of this millenium. Best selling author, 10,000 member church at some point, one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2011, New Yorker profile in 2012. But he left that to move to California, write, surf and maybe make a tv show. I have to hope that he now has more time for his family.

I am grateful that Bell writes about his doubts about being a pastor, a Christian, a worthy human being. And I am happy for him that he was able to take a break, to step away from the push to do more, bigger, faster.

But I wonder about the rockstar Quakers I have known, who have charisma and depth, who aren't actually rockstar famous. Is that a good thing? Or not? This topic is probably another blogpost in itself, but I will just put it out there for you to think about.

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