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.

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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Speak Lord for thy servant heareth

When I was a child my parents and I lived in suburban Kent. We were 'C of E', Church of England, which meant in practice that we usually went to church on Sunday and I went to Sunday School during part of the service and learned hymns and Bible stories.

At home, among my collection of sumptuously illustrated Ladybird books, there were Bible stories too and the one that I remember best told the story of Samuel - The Child of the Temple - who heard the voice of God but did not recognise that it was calling him.

At school, primary and secondary, I learned more Bible stories and read them in the language of the King James version. They became part of my life, but in the same way that Shakespeare did, not set apart as something different.

When I was about 12 years old I had what I later learned to call a 'transcendent experience'. In one moment out of time I knew, with an absolute certainty which has never left me, that everyone and everything was connected and valued in love and that that love was God. I knew that there was life after death because there was life before it in one unbroken continuous thread of which I had been, was and always would be somehow part.

I did not know what to do with this experience. I did not tell anyone about it but I refused to be confirmed in the Church because I did not want to be confined and limited by what seemed like just one set of certainties. I did not give this as a reason though and others assumed that I had no belief. At school I was not allowed to take Religious Knowledge 'A' level because I was 'not religious enough' and although this closed off an academic route to greater knowledge of the Bible with hindsight I can see that was not the way I was meant to go.

Eventually, when I was in my early thirties, I found Quakers and got to know about Britain Yearly Meeting through my job as a librarian in Friends House Library in London. In meeting for worship I recognised a connection with the experience I had had as an adolescent and began to hear the voice of my Inward Teacher. Gently but inexorably I found myself pushed out of my comfortable isolation and towards a life of community and eventually I joined Reading Meeting.

Among other things I felt that I was being urged to get to know the Bible better but I was not sure how to do this in the context of the Quakerism I knew. Over time several opportunities for learning were given to me.

I was sent as a Britain Yearly Meeting representative to Ireland Yearly Meeting and found that there regular Bible Studies were a natural part of the meeting, something I had not experienced before. I attended a couple and found them engaging, the facilitators well informed but not intimidating and relating what was studied to the participants' own emotions and experience. I then attended a workshop given by the 1995 Swarthmore lecturer, Anne Thomas of Canadian Yearly Meeting, which explored a way of looking at Bible passages by acting them out and inhabiting the different viewpoints of the characters involved.

All this was expanding my horizons so that when I read a pamphlet on Friendly Bible Study I was excited and enthusiastic. The idea of studying the Bible in small groups, looking at what each passage says to us now, seemed to me a valuable approach which would concentrate on the truth of continuing revelation, a very important part of Quakerism for me. I tried to bring Friendly Bible Study to my meeting, with the approval of elders, by inviting anyone interested to meet at my home. About half a dozen people came but among them were three older men, all 'weighty Friends' who refused to engage with what I was trying to do but instead turned the meetings into sessions of competitive academic sparring. It was all Greek [or Hebrew] to me. I could not compete or make them understand what I was searching for. I and the rest of the group were silenced and I gave up.

The voice of my Inward Teacher is still pushing me to find ways of looking at the Bible more deeply and most importantly as part of my Quaker community. The blogosphere has brought me into contact with so many Friends who are doing this. I can read and learn from them at a distance but what I long for are opportunities to share with others in my own local and Yearly Meeting. It is not a solely academic approach I am after but a way of sharing spiritual experience with others in the context of the Bible and seeking guidance on our way forward together. I have come to realise that I need companions on this journey for, like Samuel, I need help to follow where God is leading me.

Gil Skidmore is a retired librarian who has been a member of Britain Yearly Meeting for thirty years. She was a Joseph Rowntree Quaker Fellow in 1994, giving workshops on spiritual autobiography, and writes about this and Quaker history, particularly the 18th century. She is currently co-clerk of QUIP [Quakers Uniting in Publications].

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Technical Difficulties

The Bad Quaker Bible Blog is continuing to go through periods in which comments seem to be rejected by Blogger. This seems mostly to be happening in Firefox, and not all versions of Firefox at that. If you are a Firefox user, you may want to make a copy of any comment you're about to leave on our posts... just in case the Internet spirits are feeling unkind when you post.

We are interested in hearing about technical glitches that come up with your use of the blog, whatever browser or platform you are using--feel free to respond here or to email me at quakerpagan AT mac DOT com if you have issues to raise.

And to anyone who has been having trouble commenting--I'm very sorry. It's definitely not intentional, and I hope you'll try again in another browser.

If problems are persistent enough, and no other solutions exist, we will have to relocate the blog. (But I hate to do that now you've found your way here!)


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts

Before I knew human language I was learning about the Bible.

I grew up in a Lutheran preacher's family in 1950s Ohio. My Dad preached a liberal, non-violent Jesus, my Mom—daughter and sister of Lutheran preachers—played the organ while old ladies sang sweet or stirring 19th century hymns, and I learned Bible stories in Sunday School.

The Lutherans of my childhood didn't teach hellfire and damnation. They taught confession and forgiveness and now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?

They also didn't teach biblical literalism and inerrancy, though, in my child's mind, there was an unspoken assumption that all the Bible stories they told me were true. Of course, pretty much anything adults told me was "true."

There was no Sunday School attempt to acknowledge or deal with the ambiguities and outright contradictions in the Bible. This was partly because adults don't expect children to be capable of noticing or contemplating ambiguity and contradiction.

Actually, children do attempt these things as best they can, but, unfortunately, they usually do so without the help of adults. Adults generally are not comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction, and they would rather "become as little children…."

By adolescence, I was of course noticing and struggling with every single ambiguity and contradiction in life, since that is the job assignment for adolescence.

Meanwhile, Jesus was revealing more radically in my personal life his demand for non-violent justice.

We moved to South Carolina in 1965, the year my high school was integrated. It took me a while to understand why white friends wouldn't let me and my black friends sit at their lunch table.

When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, a group of black and white students tried unsuccessfully to convince the principal to hold interracial dialogs, in order to avoid violence. Instead, he accused us of violating school policy when we called a similar meeting in the county library outside of school hours.

By the time I got to Lutheran Seminary after college in 1972, I was deeply concerned with issues of war, race, poverty and women's rights. It had become clear to me that doing one's best to practice non-violence and to make human rights real was the essence of now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace.

To me, Jesus' most powerful, prophetic word is now.

Everything else in scripture is guidance on how to do now, or else stories about people who, though believing themselves to be faithful, either distracted themselves from or attempted to put off the divine plea for now.

In this context, the passage which fills me with the most bittersweet joy and longing is this one from Jeremiah:

33 No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people.

34 There will be no further need for everyone to teach neighbor or brother, saying, "Learn to know Yahweh!" No, they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, Yahweh declares, since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.

—Jer. 31:33-34, New Jerusalem Bible

"When those days have come…."

I used to struggle with the conventional Judeo-Christian-Islamic use of the notion of linear history to interpret God's interaction with this world.

I could see linear history implicit in the sequence of events, which appear to flow in only one direction. I was taught to see it in our historical storytelling, whether that was storytelling about my own life and the lives of people I know, or about other lives, or about nations, cultures, civilizations, epochs, the earth or the cosmos.

I was also taught to see it in the Bible, in that library of stories, drawn from oral and written traditions across centuries, which tell how the People stumble, err and try again and again to hear, to understand and to respond to God's desire for "mercy, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

Yet something always troubled me about the conventional readings of this history, the conventional ways of understanding God's promise.

All those thousands of years, all those billions of lives, waiting.

All those mundane or barely subsisting or horribly suffering lives of people who have to live through the not yet, who might never even hear the promise, "When those days have come…."

Something did not seem right. It was far too difficult—nearly impossible—to believe that the all-healing love of God could be present in each moment of each life, if God were saying "not yet" to billions of lives.

Random Sphere, by Eric J. HellerThen I realized that for God it is all now.

I imagined the sphere of all that humankind will ever experience.

Our paths through that sphere may (or may not) be linear history.

Yet, in relation to every point in that sphere, God is now.

Over the decades since that realization, I have come to imagine another possibility, another way of knowing the true love of God through the cloudy mirror of the scriptures.

"Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts."

Imagine that, instead of being commandments, the familiar ten sayings given to Moses are promises.

Better still, imagine that they are affirmations of what is already true, whenever we find ourselves, even momentarily, in the now of God.

"When you are aware that you are in my now...

"You have no need to mistake parts of me for the whole.
You have no need to make objects to hold my power.
You have no need to deceive others or yourself, hiding behind oaths in my name.
You readily allow all beings the equal justice of rest on the sabbath.
You honor your parents.
You do not kill, commit adultery, steal, give false evidence or covet.

"When you are aware that you are in my now, you have no desire to stray from these realities, and you cannot be swayed into do so."
—Exodus 20:1-17 (paraphrased)

Imagine that, instead of being promises, the beatitudes are affirmations of what already is.

"When you remember that you are in God's now...

"The poor receive what they need.
The grieving are consoled.
The gentle have the earth as theirs.
Justice is given to all.
The merciful receive mercy.
The undefiled of heart see God.
Those who work for peace are acknowledged as God's children.
Those who suffer for justice sake see it fulfilled."
—Matthew 5:3-10 (paraphrased)

Imagine that, instead of petitions in prayer, we make affirmations in the now...

"Our parent, your name is revered.
Your way is enacted in all parts of the now.
You give us what we need for the day.
You forgive us and help us to forgive.
You do not test but rescue us from temptation."
—Matthew 6:9-13 (paraphrased)

That would be an answer to now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?

And so it is.

Bless├Ęd 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.