Happy Easter all. The one Christian holiday that matters. I even gave up margartias (mostly) for lent! I mean, how much more committed can one get??
I just finished A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith (it’s on the book list). Truly amazing book. If you just want a reminder on how to be a positive influence in the world, read this. It’s not about God, or the bible, or doctrine, it’s about realizing we are here to make a difference through love, which is the simplest form of Jesus’ message that I can imagine. Simple, in the Quaker way. I loved it.
I’ve always been interested in the protestant reformation and the split from the “Church” back in the day. Many of Martin Luther’s objections were more than reasonable – and the split in the church seems normal through the lens of history. But, I can’t help but wonder a) what our Christian religious landscape would be like if it hadn’t split, and b) where it will end? Churches continue to splinter off over comparatively small disagreements. And wasn’t at least one of Jesus’ messages about coming together and putting differences aside? Instead we’re slicing and dicing interpretations of scripture to thinly that eventually we’ll each just form our own individual church!
Several recent blog posts reminded me of this. One from the Evangelical Outpost – Church Branding is the title of the post. The central theme is that Americans are switching churches with more regularity and don’t seem to be loyal to any one brand of their religion. Without getting into whether this is good or bad – because I don’t think that’s even the point. The bigger question is why are more and more people “jumping ship”?
Couple this news with the recent article “Most US Christians define own theology”. To sum it up with one quote,
“A sizable majority of the country’s faithful no longer hew closely to orthodox teachings, and look more to themselves than to churches or denominations to define their religious convictions, according to two recent surveys.”
To me it’s clear that both these phenomena exist at least in part because, within the Christian faith particularly, we have a history of walking away when we disagree with each other. There’s no sticking around to work out differences. Denominations split and splinter continually over differences in interpretations of the Bible, and disagreements in Doctrine. Including the most recent divorce of the Episcopal Church from itself. Is it any wonder that individuals do the same thing? Or pick and choose what pieces are meaningful to them and reject the rest. The Christian faith has been the guiding light for this behavior.
And why? Because there’s far too much focus on WHAT we believe and not enough on how that belief should impel us to act. So, the more specific churches get on that What, it’s inevitable that people will look to other ships, searching for that ONE that will meet their needs and match their belief system. News flash, it will never happen! No church will be completely sympatico with any one person’s beliefs. So we continue to break off. And what then, once a church breaks away, is it more pure, more true to the “real” teachings of Jesus than what it left behind? If so, we’re creating a dangerous Christian culture of elitism. Each group thinking they are better than the rest because of what they believe. When in reality they might all be equally appalling in how they actually behave on the planet!
Recently I’ve been familiarizing myself with the Buddhist and the Quaker religion – for those of you who’ve followed, I’ve attending the local Quaker Meeting on and off over the past several years. What I absolutely love about these two traditions is the almost exclusive focus on HOW to act with an indifference to one’s personal interpretation of doctrine. In the case of Buddhism, there is no doctrine really. It’s not about a God at all; it’s about how you personally can achieve true happiness (enlightenment) in the world. Quaker’s are more closely tied to the Christian faith but there is no dictate of what one should or should not believe. It’s a very personal experience with God with true understanding only be achieved as a group learns together.
A quote from A Quaker Book of Wisdom, by Robert Lawrence Smith,
“The premise of Quaker Meeting is that no one person sees the entire truth. The group search after truth is more comprehensive and more exacting than the search of one individual. At Meetings for Worship, the shared silence creates receptivity to the continuing revelation of the truth. People who are moved to vocal ministry offer small insights that contribute to each person’s understanding.”
Many foundational beliefs of both the Quakers and Buddhists, living simply, adherence to truth, and non-violence are not at all different from Christian teachings. Jesus was one of the strongest proponents of these concepts. But in learning about, and being part of the Quaker tradition for a short time, the difference is, these are not just things to say we believe in, they are a way of life.
How or can Christianity regain the focus on the wonderful acts of Christ without getting bogged down in the thin deli slices of scripture?
One of the other things I’ve been not doing since my new job other than blogging is attending any kind of serivce on Sunday. I have this childlike exhileration of waking up on Sunday and feeling like I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to rush off to work or a little league game or anything! There is an odd relief in not going anywhere and not feeling like it’s expected of me. From my dad making me go to church as a kid and feeling like I had to go for the kids – I am enjoying a certain freedom that I didn’t realize I wanted. I’ve spent so many years trying to understand religion, and I thought sitting in church was the way to do that. Now, I’m not so sure.
But I do miss the Quakers. I think about that wonderful silence more than any church service I’ve ever been too. I was daydreaming about it today. I’ve felt more “spiritual” in those quite meetings than I ever remember feeling anywhere else. So I believe I will be there again on Sunday – I also think I should take up meditation. Any ideas on how to do that?
I don’t know about you but I’m particularly fond of things that I buy on sale, and not just any sale, but huge 75% off type savings. It can be a truly religious experience for me 😉
One of the things I struggle with is the “love thy neighbor like yourself” concept. This struggle has become more obvious to me since attending the Quaker meetings. Each Sunday there is a gentleman who stands up at the end of the meeting to ask us to hold in the light whoever the state of Texas is about to execute. I’m very much against the death penalty and I admire this man who can think of these criminals in such a caring way. I’m not sure I am able to do this with as much sincerity.
I was thinking about this concept while driving down a busy street the other day. As I looked at my surroundings, trees, people at a bus stop, birds sitting on a telephone pole I felt nothing for them, other than idle curiosity. I wondered what it would be like to really care for each of these people/things. What if I could love them like they were mine, like my own children, like something that was 75% off!
But if I had this much love for everything wouldn’t it blind me to the bad things in the world? Wouldn’t I become the type of person to only see good and miss the pain; making excuses for anything bad that happened because deep down everyone’s good. I’ve know people like this, it’s the opposite of the pessimist and far beyond the optimist, it’s the “nothing’s ever really wrong” uber happy people. I want to slap them, because ultimately if you see no pain you see nothing to change, nothing to fight for.
Maybe I was making excuses for why I didn’t have to care. I mean, I didn’t want to lose my perspective right? Caring too much might make me the disgusting uber happy person I dreaded. I didn’t want to not see pain and therefore not feel compelled to do anything about it. That was my excuse anyway.
Almost instantly I realized that it’s only in the caring that you truly see the pain. It is the love that opens you up to see and respond to someone else’s need. A need you probably didn’t even know existed until you loved them. As opposed to blinding me to all that was negative, it would open my eyes to the real and expansive understanding of human pain and love.
I actually started crying in traffic when I realized this. Such a simple concept that I had never grasped before.
I’m not at the point yet where I can see the positive side of everyone, but I work at it daily. And it certainly takes the religious experience out of shopping and puts it where it belongs.
I’m sure at some point I will stop numbering these meetings 😉
This Sunday I had a wonderfully productive meeting with the Quakers. I went by myself, which was good for my focus. And I decided that if I was going to have idle chatter in my head it might as well be directed at God. So I just started talking to Him – first about what I felt my biggest struggles were recently then about people who were top of mind in need of “blessings” as the Quakers say. I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to carry on this one sided conversation but I just kept rambling.
It was an experience akin to calling your best friend and after she asks how you are, you’re talking a mile a minute catching her up on everything. Next thing you know half an hour’s gone by and all she’s managed to get into the conversation is a polite “uh-huh” every now and then. I love these conversations. My friend calls it “clucking”. It feels so good to share and be shared with.
So although God didn’t get his half of the conversation, it was incredibly satisfying to me. I was pleased and admittedly surprised that I didn’t run out of things to tell Him. I’d thought that this kind of opening up wasn’t possible for me. But when I stopped expecting to hear back it became much easier to find my focus and give.
After that first half hour flew by, I was spent, needed a shift in communication. So I started visualizing – just letting whatever images popped into my head be there. This was something that I didn’t have high expectations for, just an experiment. The image I saw was a staircase. This didn’t surprise me, staircases are often in my visions. When I was first going through the realities of my marriage being over I would visualize a healing path. Something very literal that I could see myself doing to show progress toward my goal – like climbing a staircase. Having just finished Karen Armstrong’s book The Spiral Staircase, this was an image I was very attached to.
When I first started my visualizations I saw myself sitting on the bottom step of a very tall spiral, iron staircase in a cylindrical room with no doors or windows. It was mostly dark. Looking up I could see a ceiling very high above me, a circular opening at the top with light shining out of it. I could also hear faint talking and laughing, like from a cocktail party. I knew that up on that level were all my family and friends having a good time, waiting for me to join them again. And, very slowly, I began to climb.
As months passed I would continue this vision. And each time I would see myself on the staircase in a different place, usually slightly higher up. Sometimes pausing, sometimes climbing steadily, occassionally backing up a few steps but never back at the bottom. I thought about this staircase for at least six months. But after that, my thoughts didn’t go to it that often and when they did I could almost see the people at the top. Eventually one day I saw myself standing on that level with everyone who I thought would be there welcoming me – I had that vision several times actually (it was a nice one to replay).
Sunday at the Quaker meeting when I closed my eyes, I saw myself looking up. There were white walls all around me, almost blinding white. And I realized I was once again on a staircase, but not the same one. There was as opening at the top with a amazing white light coming out of it. And no noise, I was all alone. I knew instantly what this meant to me.
Much like the emotional recovery from my divorce this staircase is leading me to an emotional recovery with God. And it is fitting that I should be alone on the stair; everyone’s journey is unique and personal. It was so comforting to be back on a familiar vision, one that I have confidence will end with success because I have done it before.
After my 4th Quaker meeting, I felt a real sense of failure. I had not yet really been able to concentrate on prayer and certainly hadn’t felt moved by God. As usual my expectations were quite high, and wholly out of sync with my actual set of beliefs!
I don’t know what I thought would happen exactly. I would open my heart to God, actively seeking to have a deeper understanding of Him and spirituality in my life. Then I would get a personal message from God letting me know that I was on the right path and everything would turn out fine. Riiiiiight! I don’t even believe this sort of thing does happen – yet there I was feeling dejected that, despite my four Quaker meetings and one hour a week where I at least thought about praying even though I didn’t always manage it, I had not received personal confirmation from the Almighty that I was ok.
It makes me laugh to think about now. But I marvel at my impatience, at my forgetfulness that the journey is the most important part not necessarily the destination. I was reminded again of Elaine Pagel’s quote about needing to practice Christianity, and not just to be it. Patience is my first big lesson from the Quakers I can tell. It’s something I have so little of on a daily basis – I always want things faster, sooner. Then of course when I get there, I have a moment of shock and say “wait, I wasn’t ready for this!” It’s quite typical of my pattern.
It’s a pattern I’m looking to change. I remembered a post from a woman on a message board I read describing an incident of a bird fluttering about her head, sitting on her shoulder and chirping in her ear. After the bird flew off the woman thought to herself how wonderful it was that God had shared that moment with her. She saw that bird almost as God Himself, taking time to share His beauty with her.
I am in awe of people who can see so much beyond what is in front of their eyes. These are the truly blessed. I would have seen a bird, and more than that, I probably would have been annoyed by the chirping and flying. How many times have I missed seeing something for more than what it was? How many of God’s messages may I have not heard because I was expecting a phone call?
I’m a practical person by nature, very much seeing things for exactly what they are. I believe I can learn, and that anyone can learn, to see beyond. To be open to more than the surface physical attributes of something or someone. But like everything else it takes practice and patience. Although a phone call would be nice too! 😉
I started a tradition with my kids at the dinner table called Joy Moments. Each night we go around the table and each of us list our “joy moments” for the day. These are, as I tell my kids, whatever made you smile. It’s [usually] a fun exercise and a great way for me to hear about my kids days. There is the occasional squabble about who gets to go first and then it’s all downhill from there!
My kids never have any trouble listed 5-10 joy moments for the day. One of them is always “eating dinner with my family”, which of course I LOVE! On the flip side, I do occasionally have a hard time coming up with some bit of joy from my day. If it’s a particularly bad day the joy moment is picking up my kids and coming home. Not a rousing endorsement for my life. So of late, I’ve really tried to learn from my kids and focus more on the little joy moments and try and over look the general feeling of blah at the end of my work day.
One way I do that is to save the last 1/2 hour or so of the day for catching up on my blog reading, especially the Quaker blogs that I regularly visit. I find the most inspiring, wonderful thoughts there that really help me focus on the Positive. This routine has made a huge difference in my dinnertime joy moments. As a matter of fact, the online Quaker community was a wonderful surprise to me. I’ve just recently started attending meetings and the wealth of support and information online is amazing. I don’t think I’ve seen this much virtual positiveness anywhere else online. Keep it up!
My second trick is a slight variation on joy moments. I call this “the good things”. As I lie in bed at night, right before I fall asleep I list all the good things that happened to me that day. These are not necessarily joy moments. They may have even been stressful at the time, but with the day behind me I can look back and see what events really had an overall positive impact on me. This practice helps me focus on the unexpected good that can happen during the day. And understand that even what we don’t appreciate at the time can be a source of strength for us.
My last tactic right after the “good things” is to visualize what good things or joy moments I want to have the next day. It’s about mentally preparing me to have a good day. The things I envision don’t always happen of course but that’s not really the point. My brain is already thinking positively about tomorrow.
Try these out; share them with your kids. It’s a wonderful experience.
I went to my third Quaker meeting this morning. This was an interesting one for me. I have been enough times that I’m feeling a little more at home, yet still so much an outsider in my view. My mom and my boyfriend Matt came with me today. My mother has also been interested in the Quakers for some time and was eager to join. My boyfriend came mainly because I was going and he’s wonderful that way.
Although, unlike when my children joined me, I was not worried about mom and Matt’s ability to remain quiet throughout the meeting; I still found it hard to concentrate. I so much wanted them to enjoy it and have a positive experience that I once again found it almost impossible to hear God through my own ramblings. I wonder if I’ll ever have that “quaking” feeling? If God will ever be able to get through my brain! There were some wonderful sentiments expressed by other members so at least I got to listen to that.
For several hours after a meeting I find myself thinking about whatever was said. It always gives me great food for thought and helps expand my thinking in areas that I wouldn’t get to on my own. I can’t help compare this to the Catholic service I’ve been attending for 8 years. There, the priest gives the homily with the “correct” interpretation of the scriptures and basically tells us how it is. The Quaker monologs, in contrast, lead me to think about how things could be. The Catholics represent limitations, limits on how the bible can be translated, what we can believe and even how we can worship. The Quakers represent possibilities, looking forward not back in time.
I have enjoyed many a Catholic service and have found wonderful elements of the homilies to learn from. However, there is always the sense of college lecture – the learned professor telling his class what they need to know. In the Quaker meetings I experience people sharing themselves with us. Giving tidbits of their lives and thoughts for us to ponder – it’s so eye-opening because it’s simply a whole new way of worshiping God. One – through the texts that so many believe He inspired thousands of years ago, another – through individual members of my own community that He continually inspires.
Oh and I was wrong about Matt being able to sit more quietly than my 5 and 8 year old. They had him beat hands down! 😉
My children accompanied me to my second unprogrammed Quaker meeting on Sunday. I admit I was nervous. I wanted them to like it as much as I did, but I knew it would be a huge difference from the Catholic service they are used to. I was also fearful of how long they could be quiet. They are 5 and 8, girl and boy. They are great kids, but one hour of silence is a lot even for me.
I needn’t have feared, they were angels! Well beyond their norm actually. The problem was that I found it very difficult to concentrate. I kept opening one eye to see what they were doing. At one point, about 15 minutes into the silence my daughter leaned over and whispered to me “when is it going to start?” Imagine trying not to laugh at that?! I was very happy when someone got up to speak. For one thing it gave the kids something to listen to and it also helped me refocused even if only briefly on God.
Most kids don’t go to the meeting I realized. As a matter of fact, on this particular Sunday mine were the only ones there. I was politely offered to take them to First Day School several times. But I really wanted them there with me experiencing this new way of expressing faith. Forty-five minutes into their excruciatingly wonderful behavior I was ready for it to end. They were getting a little squirmy, although still quiet, and I was getting nowhere with my ability to focus. I thought, “oh well, maybe I can’t do this with the kids, maybe I can only focus in pure quiet.” I was quite sure God had not been able to get through to me this day.
Or had he?
I’m a divorced mom. I see my kids half as much as I would if I were still married to their father (see why I go to a catholic church for more on that). At the same time, I’m twice as happy so I guess it’s all a trade off. This hour of quiet solitude with my kids was a blessing.
I thought back to that hour and realized that what I had been thinking about was them. And not just to monitor their noise level. I reflected on how amazingly wonderful they were behaving, how lucky I was that God gave me two such beautiful souls to raise. These are blessings I don’t count often enough. And maybe that’s what God wanted me to do on Sunday – to renew my appreciation for my kids. And to let them know it. I don’t always tell them how wonderful I think they are. I made a point that day to express how much I loved them and how proud I was of them.
My son’s comment after the meeting was “that was a wired church mom.” I laughed out loud! Ok, so it will take them a while to get used to. But I am so happy that I shared it with them.
At 8:30 this morning I went to my first unprogrammed Quaker meeting; technically it was my first ever Quaker meeting programmed or unprogrammed. At 10:30 I joined my kids at the Catholic Church that we typically attend with their dad. The differences were astounding. I would like to expand on what I saw and how it affected me.
If you’re not familiar with an unprogrammed Quaker meeting it’s very different from a traditional protestant or catholic service with a minister/priest leading the congregation. There’s no one person in charge so to speak. I entered the main room of the Live Oak Meeting House and took a seat. There were fewer than 10 of us in all. We sat in silence for a good ½ hour before anyone feel moved to speak.
My first thoughts were, how nice, how tranquil, how unlike my house. I closed my eyes to pray and listen to God. My understanding is that Quakers wait for the Light within listening for what God is telling them. When moved they stand to speak. So I listened. What I heard was the song that was last playing on the radio, my list of tasks for the day, the anticipation of shopping that afternoon, etc. Certainly not things I think God was trying to tell me. I kept telling my self to clear my head and concentrate.
The conversation between myself and I went something like this,
“Ok, be quite and concentrate.”
“Shhh, don’t even say be quiet just do it!”
“ok, ok I’m quiet now.”
“No! I can still hear you!”
My children might as well have been there. God couldn’t get a word in edgewise!
Ok, so even if I wasn’t going to hear God today, I would enjoy the solace. And I looked around. The space is absolutely beautiful. One of the first things I thought of was how plain the room was compared to the very ornate Catholic Church I’m used to. The only thing I saw was wood (on the floor and pews), giant windows showing me the grass, trees and sky. There’s a skylight that’s open on warmer days. It was closed today but there was a lovely blue tinted light on the ceiling giving the illusion of sky. What this room represented was all of God’s natural creations, nature was everywhere. What was missing were all the icons of mainstream Christianity: the statues of Jesus, the crucifixes, the pictures and statues of a blond, fair Mary, stained glass windows of saint after saint.
Although these things are very beautiful (especially the stained glass windows) they represent for me the very things I struggle with in Christianity. Jesus hanging from the cross, did he die for my sins? Was he really the son of God? These huge questions hang in my head on Sunday’s at this Catholic Church. I didn’t realize until today, when they were so obviously not present, how much these icons overtake my mind during church. It was lovely sitting there today not thinking about these overwhelming questions.
My mind did eventually quiet down and I accomplished some wonderful reflective thought on how I deal with my ex-husband and how to be a better mother, lover and friend. I didn’t solve all my issue in one hour of course. But I made some real progress on concerns facing my everyday life; and felt more able to face the things I needed to. Today, this meeting room was a breath of fresh air for my soul.
So I took the Belief-o-matic test. I was very curious to see what religion matched most closely to my beliefs. I had my guesses but was way off. I was surprised when the answer came back Liberal Quaker. I didn’t know anything about Quakers and had never considered that religion for myself. I was even more surprised when my boyfriend, mom and sister in law (all of whom have different religious philosophies and affiliations) also came up as some form of Quaker. Makes me a tad bit suspicious, but oh well, I’m going to run with it. Mainly because I’m curious. I’m in a mode of discovery I may as well turn over this rock. Right? Plus it just sounds cool!
It was also more than a little ironic that Roman Catholic was my second to last religion (with less than 25% matching) and this is the church I’m attending. Is it any wonder I’m confused!? Other high ranking ones for me were Universal Unitarians and Reformed Judaism. Upon reading up on Unitarians I’ve decided it’s not for me. The Reformed Judaism intrigues me, but my impression is that it would be a difficult path to conversion. And let’s face it I am basically lazy! Interesting though that my impression of Judaism is lots of rules, complexity and a group that would never accept me as a Jew. For those reasons alone I should look into that more. But first, the Quakers.
Coincidentally, once I got the Quaker bug I found out that the largest Meeting House in my home town is mere blocks from where I live and I never knew it. I’ve also met more Quakers in the last few weeks than ever in my life. (Ok, it’s only two, but that’s two more than I ever remember meeting). So I’ve done some reading up on what it means to be Quaker, what they believe, the Liberal Quakers in particular. Sounds like something I could be very interested in. And if you are read this.
So the next step is to go to one of the Sunday morning meetings. These meetings are what are called “unprogrammed”. That means that there is no clergy or leader that takes you though a sermon. It’s anyone speaking on anything that moves them. And if nothing moves them everyone sits in silence. I’m eager to see this for myself. I can’t even imagine what it will be like. It’s so much more in my nature to sit and learn from others that this will be a challenging (in a positive sense) experience for me.