About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"You stay here and be alert!"

32And they go to a place the name of which was Gethsemane, and he says to his disciples, “Sit down here while I pray.” 33And he takes Peter and James and John along with him, and he grew apprehensive and full of anguish. 34He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”
—Mark 14:32-34 (The Complete Gospels, 3rd ed. )
I recently read “The Value of Conflict,” a powerful article by George Lakey in the November 2010 issue of Friends Journal. The article was drawn from an address Lakey gave on July 5, 2010, to the Friends General Conference gathering held in Bowling Green, Ohio. George Lakey is a member of Central Philadelphia (PA) Meeting, a nonviolent activist, author, and the founder of Training for Change.

I was so exercised by Lakey’s article that I created a new blog, The Threshing Session, to invite discussion of Quaker peace and social concerns issues, and I published excerpts from the article as the blog’s first post.

Lakey’s words move me in the midst of my political despair.

We are currently witnessing mass denial with regard to the human and economic wellbeing of our nation and world. On the cusp of a second Great Depression, Americans should be rallying to share their resources and to affirm their moral and civic responsibility for each other. Instead we have anti-government, anti-tax, anti-public services demagoguery in the media and on the street, and the political and corporate powers exploit this to undo the social safety net and the worker and consumer protections of the New Deal.

As a student of history, I have been watching this process escalate since at least the late 1970s. As a Friend of Jesus, I grieve through each next election cycle, watching citizens vote against their own best interests—out of fear or ignorance or a misguided sense of entitlement.

What are we to do?

George Lakey reminds us that the first Quakers were not content merely to witness such harm done to their neighbors and their world:

Conflict warms us up. It makes available things that otherwise are very hard to achieve. I think that’s one reason why Quakers in the 17th century found it so very useful to make trouble.

Theocracies are hard to overthrow, right…? The Puritans had their theocracy in Massachusetts, and it didn’t take Quakers long to do it in….

I don’t know how you end a theocracy that fast, but I think Quakers did it because things got very hot very quickly. They engaged in conflict, and conflict made something happen. Conflict made justice happen in Puritan Massachusetts. And conflict can make things happen whenever we choose to use it.
Lakey tells of Martin Luther King’s decision to join the action on the streets of Birmingham in 1963, after President Kennedy refused to take leadership in backing the civil rights bill because of the political realities of his reelection campaign.

Then he tells of Quakers asking President Kennedy to ban atmospheric nuclear weapons testing because of the risk to children caused by Strontium 90 in the air, and of social reform advocates going to President Roosevelt in the early 1930s to propose social security and other eventual New Deal programs.

In each of these cases, the response of the President was to say: “I would very much like to do that. Please go out and create a movement so strong that it will ‘force’ me to do what I want to do.”

Next Lakey tells about the challenge voiced to him recently by a Canadian union leader:

“George, why have your people abandoned your President?”

I had nothing to say, because we had, in fact. We had elected Obama and then headed for the door, refusing to create movements that would “force” him to do what he wants to do.

We went into dependency mode like six-year-olds who say, “Please, Daddy, do this and that for us,” instead of being the young adults and the teenagers and the full adults who can demand things through nonviolent struggle.

What a big price we pay for conflict aversion, that we will even abandon a President whom we put in office.

She was right. That’s how we are looked at in some countries; as people who will put someone like Obama in office, and then run out the door, instead of kicking and screaming until he is able to do the things that he needs to do.
I had already reached the same conclusion about our abandonment of President Obama as advocate when I read Lakey’s stories. What I had not yet found was clearness on how to engage myself locally, how to engage my friends and colleagues and Meeting in public movements on behalf of our concerns.

The weekend I created The Threshing Session, I went to meeting for worship ready to ponder these concerns and, perhaps, to share them. Instead, what came to me in the silence carried me past my initial preoccupations and into the immediacy of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.

15They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, 16And he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area.

17Then he started teaching and would say to them: “Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’?—but you have turned it into ‘a hideout for crooks’!”

18And the ranking priests and scholars heard this and kept looking for a way to get rid of him.
—Mark 11:15-18
Jesus did not need to be a prophet to know that carrying his radical gospel of God’s egalitarian justice up from peasant Galilee into the urban heart of Roman-colonized Israel would put his life at risk.

In the space of a century, Rome had wholly disrupted and restructured life in Israel. It drove families off of their hereditary land in favor of wealthy landowners, who worked the land for profit, using those now landless peasants as tenants, day laborers and slaves, and shared that profit with Rome. People who could not survive in such circumstances either joined the working poor in the new Roman cities or became wandering beggars and thieves.

Jesus’ message for these people was that God cared more about them than that. His whole faith and practice was centered in living as if members of both surviving and disrupted families were actually part of one large Family, where each person was equally loved and valued, and each took care of each.

He had already challenged the religious hierarchy in Galilee, insisting that God’s will, both in the present and as illustrated in scripture, was for this Family to transcend all of the boundaries imposed by the Jewish purity codes, by social class, by disease, by nationality, and so on.

Going up to Jerusalem, he knew, meant going up against the national religious hierarchy. That hierarchy gained and maintained its power through a cult of ritual sacrifice which could only take place in the temple, and only according to their rules. That hierarchy also collaborated with Rome, in exchange for being left in power within the Jewish world.

Jesus knew well that violence—brutal violence—was the normal response of earthly powers to anyone who called attention to or got in the way of their abuse of God’s people and God’s earth. The depth of his love for God and Creation led him to stand in the way of this violence, in order to speak truth to power.

I already understood this about Jesus on that First Day morning. Yet here is the unexpected opening I was given: Jesus led his disciples into that same danger.

Did they know? Did they choose? Did he lead them unawares, or did he warn them and prepare them and give them the choice?

I agree with George Lakey’s assessment of our modern conflict aversion and with his challenge to us. Yet I also remember that many of those first Quakers met loss of family and property, imprisonment, physical brutality and death because they stood in the way.

The key is that they chose knowingly. And each of Jesus’ disciples chose knowingly—sooner or later.

A generation after Jesus, the focus of the gospel writers was on Jesus himself. Their purpose was to dramatize what they believed about him. That tends to be the perspective of readers to this day. We relegate the disciples to the role of supporting actors or extras.

Jesus’ own focus, though, was not upon himself, but upon his disciples and the Family he wanted them to love and serve.

If we read again from that perspective, we see not only how Jesus demonstrated the present reality of the “kingdom of God” through his words and actions, but also how he repeatedly warned his listeners about the earthly dangers of taking a stand in that kingdom.

Praying in Gethsemane, by He Qi That is the gist of my opening in meeting for worship. In Gethsemane, knowing that he must accept the consequences of taking his own stand, he warns his disciples again:

He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay here and be alert!”
—Mark 14: 34
I don’t believe he meant merely that they should stay alert for his sake, as his attendants. I am sure he wanted them to recognize that they were taking a stand with him, and that they needed to do so with full consciousness.

He says the same to us:

Take a stand with me. Wait for your own leading. Be alert for that leading—knowing that the powers of the world mean you violence if you follow it.
And so it is.

Blèssed Be,

Note: Published on what I call "the Empty Day."
Image: "Praying in Gethsemane," by Dr. He Qi, a professor at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

—Mary Oliver, from her collection of poems, Thirst

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

I awoke the other morning from a dream with a Bible quote, Friends in Kenya, and the seed of this blog post forming in my mind.

After an initial period of enthusiasm, tempered by the fact that the coffee wasn't ready yet, I began to procrastinate, and to think of other things I should be doing.  After all, it has been a long time since anyone has written here.  Why begin today?  I had half made up my mind not to bother with this essay when I logged onto Facebook instead to hear what the latest chatter was from my circle of friends and acquaintances.

Where I found a "friend" request from a Kenyan man I have never met. Looking at his public page, I noted that he was, of all things, a reader of the Bad Quaker Bible Blog.

I like to think I can take a hint.  So here is what was rising up in me, at the edge of sleep that morning.

Waking with a quote from the Bible in my mind is not a common event for me.  I'm a (very) liberal Quaker--a universalist Friend from a monthly meeting which probably has more members who would describe themselves as non-Christian than otherwise, and I consider myself to be a Pagan as well as a Quaker.

However, I am also a member of a yearly meeting which unites both very liberal and theologically diverse Friends like me with explicitly Christian ones.  And when I sit in worship with them, I feel that the same Spirit gathers us and fills us.  And when they speak simply and clearly words from the Bible that same Spirit has placed into their hearts, I can hear them in a way I have never heard the Bible--so often a tool in the hands of the intolerant--before.

Every now and then my heart will be touched by a particular verse or chapter of the Bible, as a chime will ring in sympathy to a particular note or chord.  And this passage from Amos has always meant something to me, from the first moment I heard it:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5: 24)

This quote appears on the fountain outside the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.  Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted this passage in his Letter from a  Birmingham Jail, when he wrote of the need to be a different kind of activist in the cause of justice.  "The question is not whether we will be extremist," he wrote,  "but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

Photo: J. Williams, 2003

And here and now, scant days before Americans celebrate King's birthday and legacy, that question is still relevant.  There is still so much injustice, so much indifference, so much corruption and greed and addiction and spite in the world all around us that it would be easy to give in to despair.  Certainly, many of the voices of Quaker activists and organizers I heard this summer at my yearly meeting's annual sessions seemed on the brink of despair.  We see the way that powerful political and corporate interests seem poised to block the changes the world needs, and the ways we too often find ourselves complicit with those interests.

And we forget.  We all forget.  We forget to love.  We forget to listen.  We forget to pray; that we are not alone, but that those words recorded in Amos were spoken on behalf of a Spirit that has not forgotten us, and is not somewhere distant from us, cynically waiting for us to fail.  We're not responsible for the whole world--only the part where we find ourselves.  We're told only to "hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate"--in the place where we stand, on the threshold of our own lives, where the world passes by our own doors, wherever it is we find ourselves.

I forget this.  In my job as a school teacher, it is easy to begin to feel so worn down and hopeless about the stream of sometimes damaged, angry, half-literate students I face, that I forget not only the joy of the students who are whole and eager to learn, but that I need not reform the entire educational system on my own, nor even change the life of every student I see.  It is enough to meet each student who visits my "gate" with my heart open, and to look for the way that I can connect with that particular teenager, one individual at a time.  One by one, as Spirit sends them to me.

But I cannot help but long for the day when so many of my students will not be so crushed by the lives they have lived that they are ill-equipped to learn.  And I cannot help but long for the day when the other troubles of the world--the indifference, the corruption, the short-sightedness and greed--will be healed.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
These words matter to me, because they are words for what my heart cries out silently every day.  These are words for a prayer that is always rising up in me, insistently, even when I seem to be busy in some other way.  Perhaps it is a prayer that is rising up from the whole human race.  I would not be surprised if that were true.

It is no wonder, then, that I would wake with these words on my lips.

But Kenya?  Why did I wake with Kenya, specifically, and with Kenyan Quakers in my heart?

That, too, is not entirely a mystery.

Through our involvement with New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, my husband Peter and I have felt increasingly drawn toward deepening our understanding of Kenya and of Kenyan Quakers.  This concern was born in the midst of controversy; our Yearly Meeting has struggled for years with the question of how to remain in affiliation with Friends United Meeting.  Friends United Meeting, the more conservative of the two Quaker bodies New England is connected with, is an important source of care and support for our Christian members... and an important source of relationships with and support for Quakers not only in North America, but in the rest of the world, including Kenya.  And two very active members of our yearly meeting, Jim and Eden Grace, who live and work in Kenya, have made it a priority of theirs to help us to see the importance of those relationships and of that work.

Through their stories, and the stories of other Quakers, Peter and I have come to care deeply about the well-being of men and women we have never met, and about this part of the Quaker world--and to be lovingly anxious for the well-being of Kenya itself.  Kenya itself has become family to us, in a way.

So much so, in fact, that Peter will be traveling to Kenya this spring.  In his work as a teacher of high school biology, he will be introducing a small group American teenagers who are considering careers in health care to the very hospitals Friends United Meeting operates in Kenya.  Will those students one day find ways to promote health care in the developing world, because of the relationships that have arisen for us through Friends?  It's hard to know... but it is certainly possible.

Friends United Meeting is responsible for a lot of good things in the world.  And the connections, across national and theological boundaries, that have arisen for us because of our yearly meeting's relationship with that body have become important to us.

I would be very unhappy to lose this fellowship.

However, Friends United Meeting, with its Christian and Biblical roots, holds several policies that are acutely uncomfortable for most of us in New England.  Friends United Meeting holds a personnel policy which openly discriminates against gays and lesbians (and against unmarried but sexually active heterosexuals) who seek to work for them.

Given our clear sense, as a yearly meeting, that same sex marriages under the care of our monthly meetings are rightly ordered (see YM minute 53, 2009), and given our commitment to justice and equality, members of New England Yearly Meeting struggle with how we can be in loving relationship with Quakers who believe all homosexual activity to be sinful and wrong.

And, while members of Friends United Meeting in this country are divided in their feelings on the issue, F.U.M. Friends in Kenya and elsewhere outside the United States seem to be clear in their sense that American Quakers who speak of this issue are revealing an ugly colonialism a fatal blindness toward sin, or both.

(I admit, I am one who cannot see any faithful love as sin.)

Meanwhile, I cannot help but be aware of how there must be many gays and lesbians within Kenya, quietly taking in all the rhetoric on all sides, still not safe, still not equal, still not fully free.  To walk away from Kenya, or to cease to speak of this issue, is to betray those men and women, too.

This is a hard place in which to remain loving with one another.  The testimony about the full equality of gays and lesbians with heterosexuals is one that has been mistaken for a simple intellectual fashion among liberal North American Friends, and it is not--any more than the testimony against slavery was notional for John Woolman, or against segregation and poverty was for Martin Luther King.  Those of us who have heard Spirit proclaiming this within us know that it is Truth, and we cannot stop proclaiming it, too.

But that doesn't mean we're proclaiming it well.  All the habits of arrogance, entitlement, and extreme individualism that seem to go hand in hand with privilege are present among us.  It is especially hard for North American Friends like me, raised in privilege, used to being heard and respected and listened to, to stay low to the Truth while remaining faithful to it.  We hear the sound of Truth, reverberating in our bones, and we forget that there are other Truths we are not open to, not aware of.  We forget to listen for the prophetic words of others, who have heard other Truths, less comfortable for us to embrace.

What do I not know about justice, about love, about mercy, that Friends in other parts of the world could teach me?  What am I ignoring about hunger?  What about poverty? And what about violence? 

How would I cope with ubiquitous poverty, if I lived in Kenya?  How comfortable would I feel, in thinking I have "only" to "hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate," if I lived in a part of the world where the poor and the homeless might be sleeping literally on my doorstep, arriving literally at my gate, and on a daily basis?

Do I even share my wealth equitably with the men and women I know in my own community?  My own friends and neighbors?  Don't I define my "gate," my place where I stand and interact with the world, in a manner that's fairly convenient for me and my creaturely wants?

And what makes me think I would stand up to the test, as many Kenyan Quakers did during the post-election violence in 2008, and stand non-violently between my neighbors and an angry and armed mob?  Would I have the courage to face down a machete, and to put my body between my neighbor and harm?

I talk a good game about justice and non-violence.  There are Kenyan Quakers have had to live it.  It is not the same.

I do understand that they have a great deal to teach me.

How do we manage to have this conversation without arrogance?  How do we listen for the voice of God speaking through one another, the unwelcome words as well as the comfortable ones?  Is it possible for us to keep our fellowship faithfully enough that we will be led, in the end, to a place of greater justice of all kinds--not just the kinds we are individually sensitized towards?

I believe it is.  My voice, from the extreme liberal fringes of the worldwide Quaker movement, counts for very little.  That's all right.  There are others who can say what I lack the skill or the standing to say.

But I will put my trust in the Spirit behind the words of Amos--behind the words in Matthew, too:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
If I know nothing else to contribute to the worldwide discussion among Friends, it will be this: I will be standing here in the gate, trying to deal justly and kindly with all who pass by.  I will try to remember that everyone I see is my neighbor... and a great many I may never see in the flesh.

And I will trust God to lead, and I will trust people--myself, and all the rest of us cranky, cantankerous Homo sapien sapiens--eventually to heed, and to follow.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tending the Garden of Shalom

Bear with me. I have been working out a new understanding of my Quaker faith lately. Unfortunately, and as usual for me, it is not a deep and unique insight. But God has given me a glimpse of the seamless garment that has left me smacking my forehead—“Duh! Of course! Why didn’t I recognize it before?” Sometimes it is the simplest things that are the most difficult to learn. Here it is: Our Peace testimony isn’t just one of our testimonies. It’s our only testimony.

It all began with 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, a passage I have been meditating on lately: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Good news indeed, that God is reconciling the whole world to himself and that he’s not holding any of our failings against us. But there’s more here—God has made us co-workers. He’s given us a ministry and a message. He’s made us his ambassadors. A ministry of reconciliation. A message of reconciliation. Ambassadors of reconciliation.

Reconciliation. The bringing of peace where before there was none. Healing. Wholeness. Wiping away tears. Soothing fears. Mending the brokenness. Midwifing the beautiful twins, Justice and Mercy. Breaking the spiral of violence. Breathing the Beloved Community into being. Tending the garden of Shalom.

The more I contemplated this passage, the more I began to understand that the ministry and the message of reconciliation—of Shalom—is at the heart of everything. Our testimonies are not an unrelated patchwork of nice things to do. Our testimonies are all ministries and messages of reconciliation. They either heal and build an environment which “takes away the occasion of all wars,” like simplicity and community; or they break the spiral of violence in order to give space for Shalom to develop, like the traditional limits of our peace testimony as a witness against war or our equality testimony when we work for civil rights. It’s all one cloth.

It’s tough being God’s representative of reconciliation. Just look at what happened to Jesus. His whole ministry and message was reconciliation—Shalom. He was always breaking the spiral of violence either by touching lepers or saving the life of an adulteress, or by speaking truth to power. Rather than fight back when the powers decided he was too dangerous to live, he accepted his suffering at their hands. Funny thing, though. He won. He showed us that we can use the suffering inflicted upon us to be transformed into someone more whole and powerful than we’ve ever been before. He showed us that the evil in the world doesn’t win, that it ends up unwittingly becoming an agent of reconciliation in the most unexpected ways. He showed us that we have nothing to fear. The day we recognize that ultimate power in the vision of the stone that was rolled away, is the day that we accept our calling as his ambassadors to a world desperately hurting and in need of Shalom.

What a message. What a ministry. Such a foolish and hopeful junior ambassador. But it feels good to finally begin figuring out how this seamless garment is supposed to fit.

(Special thanks to Elaine Enns and Ched Myers for their book, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, which started me contemplating this passage of 2 Corinthians.)

Shawna Roberts is a member of Stillwater monthly meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting (conservative). She has a husband, five children, three dogs, two cats, a goat and a donkey. Her children will cheerfully tell you that she is a Bad Quaker. Her husband will lie to your face and tell you that she’s perfect. That’s what husbands are for. She posts at Mystics, Poets, and Fools.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jonah and Robert and Me. (Forget the Whale.)

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the book of Jonah.

OK, OK. I'll admit it. It's my favorite in part because it is so very short. Really--even if you read it in King James English, it can't take you more than fifteen minutes. No fooling; go ahead. If you've never read it, or if you haven't read it recently, go read it now.

I'll wait. No problem. (It's the page and a half after Obadiah and before Micah, at least in my NIV.)

Right! See what I mean? If I gave you a quiz on it right now, after only fifteen minutes of work, most of you would pass it. (I say most of you because, hey, I'm an English teacher, and I'm well aware that many of you didn't do the assigned reading. Yes, that means you!)

So, knowing that some of you have an instinctive aversion to doing reading assignments, here's the recap. (Those of you who did do the reading may now take out your notebooks and doodle, if you wish.)

As I say, I like this story, and not just because it's short. I like it because it reminds me of teenagers, who I work with, and because it reminds me of me. More on that in a minute.

The gist of the story is this: Jonah is one of God's prophets. And he gets a, to his mind, horrible assignment, to go warn the people of Nineveh to repent. Nineveh! Ptui! Big, evil city in the heart of a big, evil empire that's been trying to oppress the hell out of Israel time out of mind. Let those suckers fry! Who needs em!

So Jonah, out to prove that a leading from God is not always a sign of being a big or noble guy, decides to run away from God, and he takes ship. Who knows where he thinks he's going to go that God won't find him. Reason is maybe not his strong suit.

Well, and of course a huge storm comes up. He's sleeping--trying to tune out the whole world, maybe, as a technique for running away from God--and the sailors have to wake him up. The ship is sinking, and everyone who isn't bailing water is praying to whatever gods they can to keep them alive. But when Jonah tells them his god isn't just any god, but the god who made the seas they're sailing, they get a bad feeling about this. Jonah has a bad feeling about it, too. Sure enough, with a little fortune telling and a little soul-searching from Jonah, the truth comes out: his God is mad at him, and he's the problem.

He winds up jettisoned, and the storm subsides.

Then there's that thing with the whale. (Yeah, I know. The fish, the really big fish. Whatever. Here's the Spielberg and special effects bit, is the point.)

After three smelly days and some prayers, the fish belches Jonah up onto the sands, back on his way to Nineveh. Jonah takes the hint, and goes to Nineveh to warn them to repent or be destroyed.

And then those evildoers do the most unforgivable thing of all. They repent. Looks like God won't be destroying them after all.

Is Jonah happy? No, indeed. The whole mission wasn't his idea. Those damn Ninevites have just proved his point: God's love is cheap! God is hardly treating him, his very own prophet, any better than he does a whole city of worthless pagans.

So Jonah camps out on the outskirts of Nineveh and has a big old sulk. He's miserable. Here he's been a standup guy his whole life, and he's a Jew and everything, and this whole city of evil heathen idolaters get told to shape up, and they do, and they get off scot-free.

Meanwhile, there he is, one of the Chosen People, and he just spent three days stuck in a stinking whale (fish, whatever) for these guys, and they just repent a little and fast for a few days and that's it?

They didn't even get circumcised, for crying out loud! How exactly is that fair?

So he announces to God that he wishes he were dead: "Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (The drama, the drama!) And he lies down in the glaring hot sun and tries to guilt God into destroying the city after all.

God, however, is a wiser parent than most of us. He doesn't waste a lot of time with trying to talk Jonah out of his sulk. Instead, as Jonah lies there moping in the hot sun, he sends a little vine to grow over him and shade him from the worst of the sun. And Jonah, he likes that little vine, the way a teenager who has declared that life isn't worth living likes the tunes on his iPod or his black-painted ceiling. He's really fond of that little vine, even while his mind is totally taken up with feeling sorry for himself.

And the next day, God takes away the vine--sends a worm to eat it. (I imagine God would have little difficulty taking away computer or cell phone privileges as a parent, either.)

Jonah is furious! How mean and outrageous of God to take away his only comfort, his beautiful, precious, wonderful vine, with the custom apps and the tunes he'd downloaded from a friend who'd moved away and--well, OK. That part isn't in there. But you get the idea.
But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

As I say, this story reminds me of teenagers. And it reminds me of me.

As a parent of a former teenager, and as a teacher of teenagers, I am reminded of them both in Jonah's sulkiness and in the light treatment of Nineveh; teenagers not only can be annoying at home, they can be provocative in large numbers... and yet grow out of their worst traits, leaving us with little choice but to put their misdeeds behind them. Which is only mostly OK, because, honestly, there's a little bit of Jonah in you and me, too, and when we've been in the belly of the whale (yeah, yeah, fish) we want a little vindication, you know what I mean?

And vindication isn't what we're here for.


Let me explain.

This winter, I have been stuck inside a big, stinking fish. The winter that began with the sudden death of a friend became an exercise, on a more immediate level, in dealing with chronic annoying, wearying, cranky-making pain.

I have a bulging disc in my lumbar spine, and it is causing me no end of aches, pains, and annoyance. Anyone who has ever had disc pain can tell you how nasty it is--and anyone who has ever had permanent pain with a permanent disability can tell you how much more serious that is than a back condition which, however irksome, is in my case at least, gradually improving.

Nonetheless, we all have our special skills and talents, and I have discovered a nearly endless capacity for feeling sorry for myself. I accept donations, too--please feel utterly free to feel sorry for me along with me. I promise not to take offense.

Teenagers, however, have no truck with pity, or at least, not for old people stuff like bad backs. They do try, some of them... but, for most, the reality that our bodies wear out and can feel really crappy is just too distant an abstraction for them to remember it for very long. So, being a teacher with a bad back, hobbling through the hallways on a cane where I used to stride purposefully, cuts me exactly no slack at all when my students are having a bad day, don't feel like doing their homework, or are feeling crabby and self-pitying themselves.

Some of them, in fact, behave just like thankless Ninevites. And I, in response? I react just like sulky Jonah.

Take Robert. Robert is my Nineveh.

Now, all the kids, not just Robert, like to hang out in front of their lockers during our break. And they all, possessed of the boneless flexibility of youth, like to sit slouched against the wall, with their feet and legs thrust straight out in front of them--that is, when they are not clustered in knots of a dozen or more students, each wearing those king-sized backpacks that stick out about a foot behind every one of their hulking seventeen-year-old bodies.

All of this creates a kind of obstacle course that I must hobble through every day between my morning classes. It was sometimes annoying when I was able-bodied; on days now when I have a lot of irritation in my back, it is actually painful. True, each micro-correction of my course, navigating the halls, is a small pain. But dozens of such corrections are wearing.

Most of the kids, of course, pull aside when they see me coming--tuck their feet back, step out of the way slightly (very slightly--they forget about the mammoth backpacks also blocking the path), and go back to their real jobs, of socializing with one another.

Robert, as you may have guessed, is different.

The other day, walking down the hall, there was the usual obstacle course--five or six sets of legs, taking up most of the available floor space. As I neared the cluster of kids, person after person drew back their feet to make room for the old lady to pass.

Not Robert.

So I stopped, doing that teacher glare thing, to communicate, "Don't you have something you're supposed to do for me about now, Young Man?"

He sneered up, with a lip curl that would have done Elvis proud.

"Robert?" I inquired, in Teacher Voice.

"Yeah? Whut?" he responded, in full Indifferent Teenager mode. (Oh, how I hate Indifferent Teenager mode.)

Beaming Stern Teacher Glare (tm) at him for all I was worth, I waited a heartbeat before speaking very deliberately. "Robert," I said, "Move your feet."

Turning those maddeningly dull eyes on me (as only a teenager can) he drawled, "You can get past me."

And it was true. I could--with another of those painful micro-corrections of course. However, some principles I believe are truly universal, or ought to be. "Get out of the way of old ladies with canes if they ask you" is one of those principles, and so I simply repeated--with the unspoken power of the Detention, the In-School Suspension, the Phone Call Home to Your Parents behind me--"Robert: move your feet."

He did, of course.

After the longest delay he could plausibly take without disciplinary consequences. (The Roberts of the world practice that timing, I believe. They are masters of timing, and we can only hope that one day, they learn to use that power for good.)

I passed down the hall. And fumed about it all day. And still possess, if I am honest with you about it, a little hard, cold, angry seed of mean toward Robert over that face down in the hallway.

Teacher friends suggested I write him up--bring down on him the wrath of the Detention, etc. Somehow, that just didn't feel right to me. Partly, it was that my point was made in the hallway: yes, on behalf of old ladies with canes everywhere, I am going to insist on civility toward me. I don't imagine a detention would make much difference in Robert's heart.

But, in truth, that is not what I want for Robert. Oh, no... I want more, much more than a straightforward lesson in manners and consideration.

Here's what I figured out I want for Robert. (Brace yourself. This gets ugly.)

I want him in a wheel chair. I want him in pain, and stuck in a wheel chair. For years. (It's not enough for me that he need a cane; you can see how far from justice my instincts are by my need to escalate this.) I want him to be aging, surrounded by sullen teenagers, and feel pain in his body and bitterness in his heart when they do not move out of his way willingly.

I want him to suffer. Oh, yeah.

Fortunately, God is probably kind enough not to give me what I want, in those moments of petty vindictiveness. Odds are, whatever the evil chemical cocktail is that causes so many teenagers to become malicious horrors around adults--especially adults in positions of authority--does seem to pass away. With or without repentance, Robert is unlikely to remain the little shit he acted with me in the hallway. He already is less provocative and arrogant with his peers, and, well, if the madness of his rudeness does not fall away from him with time, that's something he's going to have to work out with God all on his own.

I'm just his teacher. I get to show him right and wrong. But I don't get to make him change his heart. I don't even get to know his heart to know what went wrong for him, that he acted the way he did.

Jonah? Was not God. Just a prophet. Prophets get to teach. But they don't get to decide what happens next, and they don't get to decide who matters, or what people deserve.

Thank God.

Because don't we all have a little bit of Jonah in us? Wanting, not so much to bring the good news of how to live rightly and be in peace with God, as to get to watch while someone is "taught a lesson" in the most vindictive sense of that phrase. We all think we're special, that we deserve God's love and mercy more than the next guy does. Certainly more than Robert does, right?

We forget all about the gifts and grace that have brought us to the point where we can do whatever good we do in the world. We overestimate our virtues, and turn a blind eye to our faults.

Jonah didn't make the vine that shaded him. I didn't create the husband who cares for me, the teachers, yes, and many students, too, who go out of their way to care for me and make my recuperation easier, nor the strong, essentially healthy body that, it is my comfort to remember, is healing, after all... nor the parents who loved me and taught me what my heart knows by example as well as in words.

I didn't make any of these things, and yet, like Jonah, I am so capable of taking them for granted, as my due, my right, and then striking out at the Roberts around me, as though that were my business. Whatever of goodness I may have in me, I am no more than a co-creator of any of it. And haven't I been Robert, in my time? Aren't there moments that make me blush to remember them in my own life, too?

There are a lot of students in my school, a lot of teenagers in the world, and a lot of crazy humans on the planet, every one of us capable, at times, of being unable to "tell our right hand from our left" when it comes to matters of right and wrong.

In my saner moments, I see that mercy for Nineveh--for both Robert and for me--is devoutly to be wished.

In my less sane moments? It's a good thing that, as in the days of Jonah, God is capable of not taking my sulking too seriously.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Endure trials for the sake of discipline"
- Hebrews 12: 7-13

This has been a year when death and loss are real and close for many of us.

As Cat wrote recently on Quaker Pagan Reflections,

Live long enough, and loss, real loss, is inevitable, after all. We know it, but we live in the happy illusion in our youth that it is not so, that death and disease are the aberrations. Middle age knows they are the rule, and that soon or late they come for everyone we love.

But…there's an up side, too. The older I get, the better able to weather grief I seem to become. It turns out that in this, as in so many things, practice helps. Grief is a skill that grows better with use, if we dare to trust it—to feel it, acknowledge it, and keep walking.
This year I have made concrete, irreversible decisions about care for my mother as she declines into Alzheimer's. I have also struggled to communicate with my father, both long distance and in person, as Parkinson's wastes his body and reduces his speech to mumbling.

It was from Dad that I learned much of what I wrote about Jesus in my previous post on this blog. He and I don't continue to share all of the same doctrinal beliefs or liturgical practices, yet we do trust in the same sustaining Presence in our daily lives.

We two have survived our own version of the adult alienation which many fathers and sons experience. The details are not important now. Sometime in my late forties I lay down the desire for our arguments to be "settled," and he apparently did so, too. Being in the present with each other has become more important.

Ironically, I'm now 300 miles away and he can't speak clearly. As a remedy, after my September visit with him, we agreed to communicate more often by email. To my relief, this opened the door to a kind of intimacy which we have shared only rarely in my adult life.

[Note: In what follows I've elided or masked some private matters.]

In early November, I wrote to Dad:

When you fell from my arms after our hug back in September, it was like punctuation at the end of a sentence about mortality and about the eventual loss of you and Mom...and [my spouse] Jim...and everyone else I hold dear.

I've had close friends die, as well as relatives. Jim's parents have both died. At one level I thought I was learning how to deal with death.

Yet visiting you in September and dealing daily with Mom's irreversible decline makes me feel as if I've just been imagining death intellectually until now. Now its concreteness is visceral.

Somewhat surprising to have lived all the way till age 59 without having felt this so undeniably.

I don't say that my own faith is in doubt, yet it feels very dry at present...as if faith were knowledge without evidence, while mortality is clearly real.

A part of me chuckles at that last sentence and says, "You're growing up. Just be patient."
Here is part of Dad's reply:

Until I received your letter I had not thought of what it is like for you [children] to realize that you will have to live through our dying…. I realize that it's not easy or intellectual—but quite visceral—to imagine the dying of anyone we love….

My faith, as you describe yours, is not in doubt. But I confess I have a hard time thinking of not living on in this life, even when I'm reminded that our Lord Jesus Christ has promised us resurrection and life with him and Abba Father and all his saints….
After a few more exchanges, Dad sent me this:

This morning I read Hebrews 12:1-13. I found that verses 7-13 speak to us mortals:

Endure trials for the sake of discipline.

God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.

Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of all spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Sounds like my drooping hands and weak knees are the Father's discipline for me—"painful at the time, but later yield[ing] the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who [are being] trained by it."

I'm grateful to share his with you, now.

Love and peace.
This message stopped me for a bit, but then I grinned at my own ego discomfort over Paul's talk of discipline in this passage.

Like many, I tend to be put off by religious language which implies punishment. I bridle against the notion of demands for obedience imposed— whether I acknowledge their authority or not—by an external "power" and enforced by threat.

Yet my faith and practice charge me to listen more deeply.

I reread the Hebrews passage and did some research into the denotations and connotations of the words in Paul's Greek text. Doing so opened out the passage for me, showing me something more valuable than I had first seen.

Here's what I found, as I wrote Dad:

Thank you for the Hebrews passage and your personal take on it.

It's helpful to me to learn that the Greek noun (paideia) and verb (paideuo) which are translated as "discipline" have a richer sense than our narrower English notion, which tends to carry negative connotations of enforced learning and punishment.

Paul knew that, in the Hellenic world, paideia referred to classical "instruction," the process of educating a person into his/her truest form, into real and genuine human nature.
Read this way, Paul's "discipline" sounds less like a warning to "shape up or else." Instead, it assures those who open themselves to paideia of a difficult yet rewarding lifelong process of nurture and growth. I wrote:

When I read Paul, writing about the loving Father, I know this is what that "discipline" is about: leading us, incrementally yet inescapably, into an awareness of and acceptance of our true nature as mortal yet loved.

God assures us that "sufferings"—all our aches and losses and griefs—are merely part of being human, not punishments laid upon us.

We come into our true human nature as we become able to remember God's loving presence with us, even when we suffer.

This is a blessing.
Dad responded to this message with his own research on Hebrews 12:1-13 in the New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII.

Here's what he found:

…from the many faces of faith presented in [the previous chapter of Hebrews], the one emphasized here is endurance…. Verses 11-12 refer to living the Christian life as the endurance of an athlete running in a race….

Sometimes that endurance can mean suffering, not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness. And again, for those who are not enduring, it can indeed be punishment.
This observation went straight to the heart of my concern. I wrote:

The whole matter of translation reminds me of something I used to tease Mom about. She would mention some personal habit or trait she was dissatisfied with and say, "I'll have to discipline myself to do X."

I would say, "Why don't you say, 'I'll have to school myself'? You like school."

I didn't realize then that she and I were playing off of two different connotations of paideuo.

I particularly appreciate the Interpreter's Bible line about "suffering not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness."

It works both ways, though, because faith can sometimes be all there is to enable endurance.

Two years ago, when I was deep in clinical depression, there were many days when the only thing I could manage to do was to endure.

In the morning, struggling to make myself get out of bed, during the day, when my motivation would grind to a halt in imagined despair, sometimes the only thing that would keep me going was to center down, pray to God, say to myself, "It's just your brain chemistry," and then to do whatever was the next thing to do.

Those were times of spiritual dryness, when I had to rely on God without sensing God.

God is always present.

In my times of sadness now, I do the same thing.

I'm glad for this conversation.
Dad replied:

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Psalm 66:16-20 in The Living Bible spoke powerfully to me on [a day five years ago] when I was struggling with [the spiritual crisis I confessed to you at that time].

Now, it still testifies to me with God's great love and mercy:

Come and hear,
   all of you who reverence the Lord,
and I shall tell you what he did for me.
For I cried to him for help,
   with praises ready on my tongue.
He would not have listened
   if I had not confessed my sins.
But he listened. He heard my Prayer!
   He paid attention to it!
Blessed be God who didn't turn way
   when I was praying,
and didn't refuse me his kindness and love.
Once again, I stumbled over the conventional language of "sinfulness" and "confession." However, I knew that the disciplined question was not “What is wrong with this language” but, rather, “What does my discomfort with this language tell me about myself?”

Dad’s crisis involved breaking through denial about hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, and then confessing all of this to God, to his pastor and to his family.

For Dad, these actions opened the way to answered prayer, to relief from his sense of sinfulness, and to renewed spiritual wholeness.

Dad's witness challenges me to ask why I am troubled by the words of verse 18:

He would not have listened
   if I had not confessed my sins.
The most difficult answer to this is that I know my own hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, yet I watch myself repeating them over the years.

Paideia rarely produces an instantaneous reform.

Its workings are slow, incremental, correcting and mentoring me throughout my life. Moments of breaking through my self-deceptions and rationalizations. Moments of glimpsing and trying a truer way. Moments of returning to try again.

The Spirit which disciplines me exercises scrupulous discernment, not accepting anything less than naked self-knowing. Yet it also exercises unbounded patience.

The character of the relationship is not the impersonal one of subject to ruler, but the living one of child to parent, or, better, of student to pedagogue.

Therefore, I don't experience God as refusing to listen unless I meet certain conditions. Rather, I experience myself as being unable to hear God until I listen past my own noisy ego.

Perhaps this is why I prefer Robert Alter's version of the verses in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.

The Living Bible is Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor's mid-20th century effort to reinterpret the King James Version in language his children would understand. By contrast, Alter's work is a fresh translation, setting aside two millennia of Christian interpretation to recover the concrete eloquence of the first millennium BCE Hebrew poets.

Here is Alter's version of Psalm 66:16-20:

Come listen and let me recount,
   all you who fear God, what He did for me.
To Him with my mouth I called out,
   exaltation upon my tongue.
Had I seen mischief in my heart,
   the Master would not have listened.
God indeed has listened,
   has hearkened to the sound of my prayer.
Blessed is God,
   Who has not turned away my prayer
nor His kindness from me.
For my father, his moment of deep personal crisis did have the dire character implied by the English term "sin." I thank God that he was given the blessings of forgiveness and renewal when he was ready for them.

But read this again:

Had I seen mischief in my heart,
   the Master would not have listened.
When I cry out in those moments of horrible grief or confusion, or in those moments of dismay over yet again "missing the mark," it is the mischief in my heart to which the Master does not listen.

When I allow the discipline of the Spirit to quiet me, I can see and set aside that mischief.

Then I discover that my true prayer has already been heard and answered.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Mike Shell is a member of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting and attender of Jacksonville (FL) Meeting. He lives with Jim, his spouse of twenty-four years, and manages remote customer services for Jacksonville Public Library. He publishes Walhydra's Porch and The Empty Path.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Way Preparer -- Luke 1:68-79

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

John the Baptist. He is a shadowy figure for most of us, especially at this time of year, when the arrival of the baby Jesus is taking center stage. John becomes for us, if anything, a secondary character in an unfolding drama focusing on a barnyard birth, angelic anthems, scared shepherds, wandering wise men and rapacious regents. His appearance onto the stage of these events usually goes unnoticed as our attention is focused on what we consider the main plot – the coming arrival of the Baby King.

I have been thinking of him, in no small part, because I've been reading John the Baptizer by Brooks Hansen, an engaging novel about this enigmatic man and his mission. And I commend it to you.

It reminded me that, yes, John's birth is no cause for a natal celebration, no giving of gifts, no three month long frenzied buying season. Yet, the coming of this baby was miraculous, too. One that was heralded by an angelic announcement, by the same angel even, as was Jesus’. And it was his birth and his life that set the stage, prepared the way, for this one who would come, the one who gets all the attention (and rightfully so). Without this baby, who grew to a man, the people of his day would not have been as ready for the baby and man Jesus.

That’s often the way it is with people who help prepare the way for others to step into the limelight. We appreciate their moment on the stage but are often anxious for them to depart so we can get to the main attraction. We often fail to see the wonder and accomplishment of these talented troupers and notice how they have made us ready for what is to come.

My friend Alan Garinger appreciates those who play second fiddle – he’s done a whole series of sketches on sidekicks. All because he happened to like one back-up singer who made one of his favorite singers (he felt) sing her best. But Alan is rare (for that and other reasons) – most of us want to see the star not the sidekick.

And many us regard John the Baptizer as a sort of sidekick. In fact, if we are honest, we have a picture in our minds eye of Jesus as rather polished and smooth (in a good way) and John the Baptist as a sort of wild and woolly holy man. Like Gabby Hayes to Roy Rogers. After all, John the Baptist, as a man, was known as one who lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and honey, preached long and loud and baptized people in the River Jordan. He spoke the plain truth and didn’t soften it with nice parables. We have the feeling that he literally scared the hell out of people instead of winning them with kindness and love as did Jesus.

That may be because we don’t really look to closely at this one who was the way preparer. He comes from hardy and religious stock and his own birth had that of the miraculous about him, as did his cousin Jesus.’ John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the temple in the days of Herod. He was married to Elizabeth, who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. Both were well past the child-bearing years. Still, they wanted a child. We are told they both lived righteous and blameless lives. One day, while going about his business as a temple priest, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that God has heard their prayers. Elizabeth will bear a boy child. Just as when Gabriel later appears to Mary, he tells Zechariah what the boy’s name is to be and what role he is to play. Zechariah’s response to the angel is a bit more skeptical than Mary’s – he doesn’t believe the news. And so his mouth is sealed, Gabriel says, “until the day that these things come to pass.”

The people who were waiting on Zechariah to help them with their temple offerings were annoyed at the delay – where could that priest be? When he finally appears, he can’t speak. Maybe the wait was worth their while they think, assuming Zechariah has seen a vision. He makes signs to them, performs his duties and stays at the temple until his time of service ends and only then returns home.

Indeed, as the angel Gabriel says will happen, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Six months into her pregnancy, Gabriel appears to her cousin Mary with his news for her. And he adds the information about her cousin Elizabeth, saying “with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary hastens to visit her cousin, both in wonder and for assurance. Elizabeth blesses her and helps her confirm the truth of the angelic message.

The time comes for Elizabeth’s baby to be born. The neighbors gather to see the child and on the eighth day, as the Jewish ritual demands, he is to be named. His father, remember, hasn’t spoken in nine months. The people want to name the boy Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No, his name is to be John.” “But nobody in either family is named John,” they protest. Sounds like today, doesn’t it. So they take their case to Zechariah. He writes on a tablet “His name is John.” Immediately, his tongue is loosed and his voice erupts into the passage of scripture I read just a few minutes ago.

I love these words of Zechariah. First he praises the Lord for his remembering his promises and his bringing salvation through the house of David. These are the same things we read about in the prophecy of Jeremiah last week when we talked about how the people, and indeed the times, were ripe for redemption.
Then he speaks to the child. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That’s quite a charge to child whose birth, and life, we largely ignore.
Indeed, John, as a baby, drops from the biblical narrative at this time after a sentence saying that he grew and became strong in spirit and was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel. Attention is now drawn, in the Lucan story, to the nativity, which begins with those familiar words “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
When John reappears he is around 30 years of age. He emerges as a wilderness preacher, adorned in coarse camel hair as opposed to the finery of the temple priests. He lives simply and preaches a simple message – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The people who hear him think he is the prophet Elijah come back.. The political powers, especially Herod, are afraid of his popularity among the people, but also afraid of what might happen if they do away with him. He urges the people to show their repentance by being baptized in the waters of the Jordan river. If you read his words, they sound remarkably like the message of his cousin who is to follow. Loving those in need of loving and stern with those to whom much had been given and much was expected.

He was especially harsh in his confrontations with the royal palace – in this case, King Herod. This is not unusual for an Israelite prophet. Judean kings, while not liking it, had gotten used to it. Of course, they often dealt with it by imprisoning or killing the prophet, but they were used to it. The reason for Herod’s ultimate dissatisfaction with John has to do with John’s denunciation of marriage to Herodias. For the Jews of the time, John’s denunciation was more than a moral pronouncement – it was one of political, religious and ethical dimension. Herod had put away his first wife, whom he had married in a political alliance which did indeed bring peace to the area, to marry his half-brother’s wife. Herod Antipas, incensed at John’s increasing popularity, his attacks on himself and Herodias, and perhaps frustrated in his attempts to find and silence the other Jewish trouble maker Jesus, has John arrested. But that’s all, until at his birthday celebration, the daughter of his wife danced and so enchanted Herod that he promised her anything she wanted. She asked for the head of John the Baptist. A man of his word, good or evil, as were all mid-eastern potentates of the time, Herod granted her wish. So ends John’s ministry.

Or does it? The latter part of John’s story is something most of us are familiar with. Movie makers have delighted in telling it, with its blend of sex, scandal and mayhem. But we don’t often think of John as one who gave his life in the cause of preparing the way for the Messiah. When we do think of him, we think of John the Baptist as an adult. A man who captured the imagination of the people of Israel, talked of turning from sin and toward righteousness and announcing the coming in immediate terms of Jesus. And it is true that this is one of the ways he pointed people to Christ and prepared the way for the Messiah.

Yet, I think it is important to remember, especially at this season of advent which some Quakers (bad or not) pay a little bit of attention to that all of John’s life was heraldic in a way. Even in the nature of his birth. That is in itself miraculous.

We, like the people of John and Jesus’ day, expect to see the things of the spirit dressed in trappings of something religious. That is, in the liturgy (or lack of), singing, sermonizing, scripture reading and so on. That’s not to say that important things aren’t there – they are. But we are so used to finding them there that they are often the only place where we see God at work. And so we fail to see God moving in the things we often think are the simplest and every day things of life. In this case, the birth of two baby boys. But that’s the way God works, more often than not -- in the normal course of human existence – although, I grant you, in these cases, with miraculous dimensions to them. We are much more likely to hear the voice of God in an infant’s cry, if we will open ourselves to that instead of being annoyed, than we are in some super charged religious setting.

That’s because, true to His nature, God did not prepare the way for a Messiah on a white charger with angel armies arrayed behind him by sending a dramatic figure with trumpet blaring and mountains moving. God instead prepared the way for a Messiah who would come as a baby, grow into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love, by sending another baby who grew into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love and pointing the way to the one who was to come. Those who come to follow Jesus, both during his lifetime and after his resurrection (including us today), had their hearts opened in preparation for the everliving Christ by John. He was not the Light, but willingly pointed people to the Light.

We would do well to remember that during this advent season -- the willingness of John the Baptist to point to Jesus. How he made his life’s work, indeed gave his life, preparing the way so that others could see Jesus. It may well be that that is our call this advent season – to help others see Jesus. It is, after all, easy to lose sight of the Christ child in all the Christmas wrapping and decorating and caroling and on and on and on. Even in the midst of celebrating his coming, we fail to prepare our hearts and eyes for the birth of the miraculous child from the skies.
John reminds us that pointing people to the everliving Christ who comes to call us His own is a noble ministry in and of itself.

May we open our hearts and minds to being preparers of the way – so that through our hearts, and words and actions others might encounter the Christ for whom they seek – even if unaware.

-- Brent
Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, writer, and photographer. Learn more about him at www.brentbill.com or holyordinary.blogspot.com or theartoffaith.net

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Living in the Kingdom of God

"The Kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17: 20-21)

My friend Abby died yesterday. I'm not sure how well I'm going to do with this essay, because I'm so stretched between my grief, my desire to honor her life, and the fatigue that comes from waiting for an unwanted death, that I'm not sure how clear I can manage to be.

But it seems important to share this.

Last night, I got to live--at least for a little while--in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy. Which is perhaps an odd thing to write about spending time with friends after a death, and especially after the death of a woman who might have objected to my using the word "God" in any sentence where I was speaking of her or of her life. Never mind. I'll try to piece this together for you as best as I can.

Abby was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of this month. Two weeks ago, surgery revealed that the tumor in her colon was Stage IV. One week ago, sonograms and other medical analysis showed that the cancer was widespread enough that the only thing chemotherapy could guarantee her would be pain, and she and her wife made the decision for her to come home. "We realized that this is as good as it's going to get, " Abby wrote to us.

Home she came, to a bedroom that had just been painted her favorite color--purple--and a house she and her beloved had lived in for a little less than a year.

In between the visits from hospice nurses and social workers, Abby and Janet kept up a steady flow of communication with us all, letting us know that her pain was under control; that she was sleeping a lot; that she was thinking of us all. Like waves washing onto a shore, best wishes from friends arrived on their doorstep: casseroles, cards, Facebook notes and emails and phone calls, and visits. "It's the first time the house has been quiet all day, " Janet told me, early one evening this week. "Everyone keeps stopping by."

The last time I saw Abby alive was on Friday last week. Her breath was short, and her mind was wandering a bit--how much from the morphine, or from the "Ativan cocktail" she'd just been given was hard to say. She found the erosion of her razor-sharp wit and memory hard to bear, and was visibly frustrated with the constant ringing of the phones--the house phone, the cell phones for everyone present, with their dozen different rings. But she was grateful, too. Though the endless calls distracted her from her ability to say what she wanted to say, and though she felt the painful nearness of her own death ("I still have so much to do!" she cried to me, at one point) she also had nothing but praise for the friends, the hospice nurses, the endless stream of well-wishers.

She inquired anxiously how I was doing, at one point, and was there anything she could do for me? (Oh, Abby!)

Abby died at 3:00 yesterday afternoon, gently, in her sleep.

Janet called me around 6:00 or 7:00, and I told her I wanted to be there with her; she said that would be all right. When Peter and I arrived, we found Janet on the phone, calling one person after another. "I just don't want him to find out by the computer," she explained, hanging up from a call to wrap us each in a bear hug. "There are just certain people... I don't want them to find out from someone else."

Janet was focused on caring for us, caring for others, caring for Abby... She was not bustling from room to room, distracting herself from her grief. She was holding it and holding us all, wrapping us all up together in the strength of the love she and Abby had shared for one another and with us.

It was not silent. There were the phone calls, in and especially out. There was the concern for those who could not be present, but might want to be. There was the big box of photographs, spanning decades of Abby's life, her daughter's, and Janet's, which a changing pool of a half-dozen or so of us shared with one another along with matzoh-ball soup, knishes, and fistfuls of kleenex.

It was quiet when Janet announced that she felt it was time to call the funeral home to come for Abby's body.

"They'll be here at nine," she told us, minutes later.

I reflected back that it seemed important for us to be there for Janet when they arrived--did she agree? She did, so Peter and I went home briefly, to care for our dogs, and make a few calls of our own, to "our" part of the phone tree. Passing the word.

We returned, anxious Janet not be alone when the funeral staff arrived. We need not have worried. As one person hugged goodbye, another arrived. More waiting, photographs, sadness... and love.

The moment when Janet disappeared with the stretcher-bearers to assess the logistics for removing Abby's body was a hard one. At one point, I looked into the eyes of a woman I had never met before, and said, "Hi. I'm Cat. You don't know me, but I need to hug someone. Do you mind?" She shook her head, and we wrapped our arms around one another, holding each other as we cried a bit.

I know that woman now. And she knows me.

In fact, we all of us know one another now, who were willing to hold and be held in our grief. I have looked into the eyes of men and women I did not know a week ago, and found love and comfort there. Each of these people loved my friend, for a longer or shorter time. Each of them holds a small spark of her fire, and is bearing it forward within them.

We're friends within and through our friends. Through our love for them, we can love each other. Through our love for each other, we have our friends: alive still, whole and strong.

We comforted one another. We comforted Janet--awkwardly, I'm sure, but I know my friend, and her heart held enough grace to see beyond our lack of it. Janet and Abby both faced this parting with enormous courage... and grace.

It takes grace, to remain grateful for love in the midst of loss. It takes grace to see the small gifts of reflected memories in the eyes of the friends who love you and grieve with you. It takes grace not to give way to bitterness, or blame, or anger (as we all will eventually do, at least for a while).

I am deeply grateful that Abby and Janet were able to stay in that grace together.

My friend's death is a tragedy, a lost color in a rainbow, a lost instrument in a symphony that demands her song. We who remain are inadequate to carry her stories as they should be carried; we are inadequate to comfort one another, let alone her wife, our friend. That is true.

But it is also true that those who live with open hearts and with gratitude for the small and human gifts of love receive something extraordinary from time to time. There is something there, waiting to be allowed inside, that is bigger than a knish or a kleenex, or even a human heart.

I have seen flocks of birds rising together in a wave, flying so close that wing nearly brushes wing. With invisible signals, they know: now we wheel. Now we soar. Together in one wave they crest and rise and fall, gathered in beauty. To me, that is a vision of the Kingdom of God.

And last night was a vision of the Kingdom of God.

Wheeling and turning, embracing and mourning a friend, we stood gathered by grace and by gratitude into the living presence where there is no loss, there is no death, and every eye reflects back all the love it has been given, fully and without distortion, into the eye of every other.

The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy, the Kingdom of Love is right now, forever, and every minute; if we let it. If we have the strength (or the grace) to find the love, even in the heart of loss.

We do not need to wait for heaven. We live in the Kingdom now.

May God heal all hearts.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.