In the presence of God and these our Friends

I remembered this morning why I come to yearly meeting.

20 years ago, I went to Pacific Yearly Meeting for the first time with my husband and our two year old child. The first day was pretty horrible. It was super hot. Eating and sleeping in a new place was a challenge for our two year old. And his parents. We were all pretty cranky. But then he had a really good time at the children’s program. He woke up the third morning saying, “Mommy? I want to go to schooool.” (The preschool program was in a kindergarten classroom.) So I got him to the program pretty quickly on the third day and I made it to the plenary worship for the first time.

I walked in to a meeting for worship with 400 Friends for the first time in my life. As I sat down and settled into worship, it was like sinking into a pool of cool water. I breathed more deeply. And I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit with me and among us. Over the years, I return to that experience in my mind as an example of why I come to yearly meeting.

This morning, after about 24 hours of being cranky about a range of things, I arrived at plenary worship at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting annual sessions. And I had that same sensation of sinking into cool water. Of being in the presence of God and Friends. And I remembered, this is why I come to yearly meeting.

The actual people who are here are trying. They have their issues. Some Friends aren’t here, that’s their choice. The business needs to get done. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes not. But that is par for the course of life. That doesn’t change my experience of the presence of God among Friends.

This is the most important reason why I come to yearly meeting sessions every year.

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My 3 Words for 2018

This is still my favorite way to approach New Year’s resolutions and some reflection on the year behind me. This process is from Chris Brogan. You can read about the discernment process and his 3 words for 2018 on his blog. You can search for the hashtag #my3words to see other people’s takes on it. You can read my 3 words for 2017 and find links to the years before that on my blog.

My three words for 2017 were Slow, Teach, Ask. I feel like I made progress in all three areas, so that is something. And I specifically referenced these intentions in my mind throughout the year, to help me choose my words and my commitments and my actions. Which is the point. And it was easy to tell other people my words because they were both simple and cryptic. Most of Brogan’s 3 words choices fit that model. Each single syllable word holds a wealth of meaning and serves as a touchstone for a profound intention.

This year, I’m going to buck that tradition and use the longer words that baldly mean what I mean.
Family, Intellectual, Marketing. 
Family, because this year is going to require more engagement with my extended family than before. My parents are aging and my sister is bearing most of the burden because I live so far away. So I am acknowledging how much positive love and support I have been given by my parents and committing to be more present and more helpful in the coming year.

Intellectual, because I really enjoyed the writing and reading and talking to academic people I did in 2017. I want to push myself to find more opportunities for thinking and writing and talking to people about ideas in the coming year. Most of my non-work reading in the last dozen years has been young adult fantasy and adventure fiction, following my tween and teen kids. (Part of my standing commitment to be able to have conversations with them about the things they are interested in.) But I remember now that I want to read to challenge my brain, not just to comfort or distract myself. And I want to push myself to articulate my ideas clearly and completely. And to write for a wider audience.

Marketing is all about my paid work. This last year, I took an online course with Seth Godin, the first cohort of The Marketing Seminar. It helped me in so many ways. What do you do? Who is it for? What change are you trying to make? How do people who need us learn that we have what they need? How do we delight the people we serve? This coming year, I want to address more straightforwardly the challenges for FWCC, which all have a marketing component. And I don’t want to waste time looking for new words that mean the same things as marketing technical terms but sound spiritual. Plain speaking is still a Quaker value.

As I look at this, these are my personal intentions for improvements in 2018. And as always, I try to remember that what I truly desire to do is not my will, but thine, O Lord.

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New mercies I see

Have you heard the saying that the secret to a long, happy marriage is falling in love over and over again, each time with the same person? I believe this to be true.

I think it is also the secret to a long tenure in the same job, or a long-term practice of the same religion. The cycle of conviction, convincement, and conversion is a staple of Quaker faith and practice.

I feel like the last couple of weeks have brought me to a renewal of my “vows” to my job. (I use quotes here because it’s still a time-limited contract, not a lifetime appointment.) Perhaps it is more a renewed sense of my vocation and the discovery that it is still in line with my paid employment. I think this will come as a relief to my husband and my board of directors, who have watched me wrestle with the questions only I can answer. I know that this season of uncertainty will come again and again. That is just part of the examined life.

One of the factors has been this class I’m taking, on marketing with Seth Godin. I’m using the Traveling Ministry Corps as my case study and it’s been great. I’ve gotten much clearer about how to do that work. But one of the byproducts has been what Godin called, “marketing to the most important student." Which is myself. In the act of thinking about who is this for? and what do they care about?, I find myself articulating more clearly why I think this work is important. Which has the effect of reminding me why I want to do this work. Which makes a lot easier to do it.

Another factor was going to the Stoking the Fire retreat before the FUM  Triennial. It was wonderful to be with about 40 Friends, from high-school age to 80-somethings, who all came to stoke their own fires. And it was wonderful to be taught by women whose character and ways of service I can aspire to. We all need those examples. Imperfect human beings who are sharing their own lessons. I can’t overemphasize how important it was to go to a denominational conference for which I was not the over-burdened staff. I went to worship every day. I was present and vulnerable in worship sharing groups. I snuck out for coffee with old and new friends.

One of the messages from God to me in worship was, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Not in the sense that song was written. But if I can’t be with the Meeting I love, I have to love the gathered community of Friends wherever I am. I can’t hold back until I’m home with the people who already know and love me. I have to share my insights, my faith and my doubts with whoever is there, or I’m not going to make it. (There are limits to this, but they are further out than many people think.)

And if I can’t be with the river I love, I can love any bit of water I can find. The Greenville Y of the Feather River and the Connecting Railway Bridge over the Schuylkill River are both spiritually grounding places in my life. But other lands have sunshine too, and clover

In this same couple weeks, I read Diana Butler Bass’s book, Grounded. In it I recognized my own sense of dislocation from my roots and my connection to the imagery of water in my psyche and my spiritual journey. (Mountains and grass are also important images in my spiritual life, but that’s a different story.) The phrase that resonated the most for me, that speaks to me of my whole life’s project, is “sacred cosmopolitanism.” (Bass, p. 270) Bass cites Kwame Anthony Appiah, Mark Mitchell, and John of Patmos as sources. I’m still working this out, but it speaks to me of an urban theology. We need a positive theology for living together in the 21st century. Cities are not inherently and unrelentingly more corrupt than anywhere else. As a friend said to me twenty-six years ago, “The city is the place of the people animals,” and it has been my place for over 30 years. It is a philosophy beyond nationalistic parochialism, but with room for a “humane localism.” This is a philosophy that can acknowledge that home-grown tomatoes are the best without falling into the trap that only my family’s tomatoes are any good. This speaks to me of the possibility of pluralism and affirming the truth of my own people’s stories. In the midst of the morass, we need the uniquely human spiritual gifts as well: compromise, paradox, balance, contrarianship, translation. None of us is a single story, least of all me.

While I’m at it, I want to acknowledge that all of these good things have coincided with a break in the hormonal crappiness of peri-menopause. Despair is both a spiritual and a chemical condition. I don’t really want to discuss that here, but I think it would be a sin of omission to not recognize that it’s a factor in life, and I am not immune to or above its effects.

Which brings me back to feeling refreshed for the journey and re-committed to my work. I am blessed to have the right and the responsibility to live out my divine calling in my day job.

My main job is connecting Quakers to each other - so that they are freed up to connect with other local people who want to be part of a healthy and functional spiritual community that is committed to peace and justice and following God’s guidance for our lives. From Alaska to Bolivia.

There is always more work to do than hours in the day or days in the week. There is a lot of accounting and administrivia in my job, no fooling. But there is also the opportunity to speak up, to connect people, to see patterns from this particular perspective, to hold the big picture in the Light and to call Friends to live up to the Light that we have been given.

I need to not get so bogged down in the accounting and event planning so that I fail to look up and out and do all the things that are risky and engaging and visionary. I try to practice a refreshing honesty, a warm, engaging hospitality and a bracing ministry of encouragement. Sometimes I get to be a bee, pollinating between blossoms in the orchard of Friends. Sometimes I get to be a gardener, preparing fields for planting, or hoeing crops in the ground, and contributing to some harvests I will not live to see. That is a blessing.

Over the last several months, I have wrestled with the fact that I have to choose my battles. I can keep up with my home life, or my work life, or the national/international world. Pick two out of three. And this year, I realize that I am choosing family and Friends. But I believe that if I and the Friends World Committee do our work well, there will be more than enough hands to do all the work that needs doing.

Because these Quakers are the line of people who taught me to be more fully myself, who helped me understand the mysteries of my spiritual life. Because this is the people I have found who are the most committed to peace and justice and following God’s guidance for our lives. Because I think I can make a difference here and now.

Now, because this is the time I have. Now, because these are probably my peak years to combine experience and energy.

Now, because the world desperately needs more Quakers who are committed to peace and justice and following God’s guidance for our lives. And in order for Friends to live up to our highest calling, we need each other to balance and challenge and support each other.

Now, because it’s the most exciting thing I can imagine doing - where I generally feel competent and appreciated - and fully challenged to live up to the Light I have been given.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me. … Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

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My Three Words for 2017

Slow. Teach. Ask.

Slow, because I want to slow down and pay attention. Not speak too quickly. Not act too quickly. Not judge too quickly. Not fix it too quickly. I want to take the time to be more graceful, more patient. Most of the things I regret (was embarrassed by) in the last year/my whole life are because I spoke without thinking, leapt without looking.

In La Paz, Bolivia several years ago, at that high altitude, I learned that I could get along fine as long as I walked like a dignified Señora, and not if I scurried around like a little girl. If I tried to run up the stairs, I would be out of breath by the first landing. But if I just walked slower, I would get where I was going smoothly and with energy to do whatever I need to do when I got there. I want to remember that lesson as I approach 50 and beyond, even at sea level.

Teach, because it makes me happy. I like explaining things. I like sharing what I have learned. I like inviting people to consider new ideas and facilitating discussions. I want to accept more invitations to speak and to write when they come to me. I will look for ways to do this as part of my job, because it makes a better balance in my life with all the management/accounting stuff, so that I can continue to enjoy my job. And I want teaching to be part of my life at my monthly meeting and in my children’s religious education. For me, this will include taking time to write more articles, maybe even more blogposts! Invitations to teach do come my way every so often, and I want to remember that they are not a distraction from my real work – this is part of the work that God has created me to do, whether I get paid for it or not.

So, to start, I will be leading a discussion at Green Street Monthly Meeting on January 29, 2017 at 9:15 am, about a passage from A Language for the Inner Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom from the Quaker Movement by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr., pages 92-93, from the chapter on “Community and the Inner Life of the Meeting.” The discussion will focus on “What is the real purpose of our worship together?” And then, I will be writing a lesson for the United Society of Friends Women International 2017-2018 program book, Blueprints, on the same theme. I am grateful to the Friends who extended the invitations to do both of these.

Ask, because I want to be less bossy, less of a know-it-all. To ask first, do you want me to tell you more about this? Or not? Do you want help? May I? How may I help you? How would you like to be involved? How would you like to hear from me? What do you think? To say less often, “You know what, you should _____________!”

This is a life lesson, that maybe I can change and maybe I can’t. This is rooted in being an eldest child, so it’s a long time in the making. I am weighing this desire against the fact that girls with leadership skills are too often called bossy. But I think that I could be more effective in my leadership and my teaching and my interpersonal relationships if I were more thoughtful in my communications. Which makes this connected to my first word, slow, because if I thought for a second before I speak, I would find better ways to teach, better ways to lead, better ways to parent adult children, and be a wife and sister, etc.

I pray for God’s guidance and people’s forbearance as I move in these directions. I am grateful to Chris Brogan for his inspiration to choose three words each year. If you want to read some of my three words from prior years, here are 2016, 20152012, 2010, and here are my prior attempts at new years resolutions from 2009 and 2008. If you write your own, use the hashtag #my3words so that we can find each other.

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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 Sunday 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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