Saturday, October 29, 2005

Colouring Books

Today I had some time to pass till my favourite kids’ consignment store opened (who opens at 10:30??), so I browsed in the “Christian” bookstore next door. The sign over the door reads: When we serve you, we serve Him. Yikes.

I did this once before, two years ago, when I was looking for some material for firstday school. We were doing a unit on the teachings of Jesus, especially the parables, and I thought I could pick up a colouring book or two with some pictures in it. The little kids could colour them while the older kids talked about the story. For the sake of this unit, I put aside my distaste of all things uberChristian and ventured into this store.

But I ended up leaving empty-handed that day. Sure, I found many colouring books. They started with Adam and Eve, progressed through violent and theologically irrelevant ancient history, a few prophets spouting damnation sermons, then onto Jesus’ birth, cut to the Last Supper, kill him on the cross, raise him on the third day, on to the apostles and apocalypse, finished.

I did a double-take and flipped back again to check. But it was true -- the life and teachings of Jesus were missing.

I thought perhaps it was a mistake in the first colouring book. But I checked them all. Only one had a single picture of the prodigal son story. None of the others had anything else.

I called over the store clerk and explained how the children’s colour books had left out the teachings of Jesus. She took a deep breath that seemed to say “Who are you to tell us, the Christian bookstore, what belongs in Christian colouring books?” Then she gave me a convoluted theological justification that basically said the teachings of Jesus were not all that important to “real” Christianity. I didn’t argue with her. I mean, what could I say to that? I just asked softly, “Do you have anything about the teachings of Jesus at all in this store?”

She directed me to another section of books – flashy titles, all paperbacks, all written by male American ministers in suits and ties whose photos were on the back cover. Nothing kids could colour, but I flipped through some of them anyway, curious now, reading snippets here and there.

One explained that Jesus taught that only people who were saved were actually children of God, that everyone else was not, especially people of other religions.

Another described how Jesus’ teachings forbade cremation, another that his teachings mean that a child of faith cannot go out for Halloween, another that Jesus taught that God does not forgive sinners of certain kinds of sins.

I don’t know how long I stood there unmoving, barely even breathing. I don’t remember leaving.

Today, the store is in a new location and under new ownership. I am no longer looking for colouring books because our firstday school has long since moved on to other units. But as I walked between the rows, I zeroed in on the colouring books anyway. As if they were somehow a barometer of how truth was prospering in these parts.

Nothing had changed. There was still a scar in these books where his life used to be, as if the pages had been torn out.

As if the authors had been in such a mad rush to get him up on that cross that they didn’t want to waste time listening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Born Free

A few nights ago, PBS was discussing Iraq (what else?)and whether the US military is going to "wind down" its occupation after the election. Speakers pointed out that most of the US military has already served two terms in Iraq, and most of the marines have served three terms. Their point was that this extreme abuse of soldiers can't continue.

On top of that, 2000 soldiers are dead and another 15 000 injured—anything from a broken leg to complete loss of physical function. To call these soldiers cannon-fodder is not an exaggeration.

Yet the soldiers can't say no. They're not allowed. Once they sign on, they are owned by the state, to be sent wherever the state wants to send them.

Consider these working conditions:
· Soldiers face courtmartial if they refuse to obey orders.
· Soldiers also face the courts if they do obey orders but with disastrous results.
· Soldiers are ordered not to think for themselves.
· Soldiers are punished when they don’t think for themselves, don’t apply ethics to a situation.
· When military wages are cut, there is no means of protest. Soldiers cannot bargain, negotiate, or strike.
· Soldiers who run away are criminals who are hunted down.
· There are no explanations and no apologies when soldiers are killed in action. A soldier’s death doesn’t require an explanation.

My conclusion - The military is the last permissible form of slavery in the West.

What if – and this is a big what if – armies unionized? Governments would then have to enter negotiations with the military before declaring war. They would have to ensure adequate training and preparation in consultation with troops. Moreover, the military would have a say in their wages and working conditions, as well as their equipment. That would allow them to better support their families and balance their lives.

I wonder how much of the evil of war stems from the slavery that is at its foundation. If we removed the slavery element and soldiers were expected to think for themselves, would the same types of atrocities be committed?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The M Word

It was my f/Friend Kate’s wedding today. As Quaker weddings go, this was a big one – 90 in attendance. The kids were noisy, as kids are at Quaker weddings, and the potluck supper was superb. The families were real troopers too, standing up to sing or read messages, even if it all seemed a little weird to them. They played pass-the-baby and whose-turn-is-it-to-mind-the-squawkers. And throughout it all, we held the whole bunch of them in the Light the best we could.

My mind did wander. I’m not a stellar Quaker. But at one point, I started thinking about marriage itself

It’s a custom that we have in common with most of the world’s people. Yet even though so many have this concept, the word does not have a single meaning.

In some parts of the world, you can be married to more than one person. Whereas in this part of the world, you can’t: not just because of the law, but because the relationship would lack the intimacy that is part of our definition of the word.

In some parts of the world, marriage is a physical and economic bond. In the West, it's a personal and emotional bond.

But even in the West, the way we view marriage isn’t uniform. Some people focus on the noun-ness of the word, and others focus on the verb-ness. This difference creates a big communication barrier.

Noun people think of marriage the way they think of a word like “horse” (has four legs, a mane, a long tail). It’s a thing, a fixed concept. These people would never substitute, say, “donkey” or “ox” even though these animals share many of the same features and functions as “horse” -- because these animals are not “horse.”

Verb people think of marriage the way they think of a more abstract noun like “beast of burden.” It’s the role or function of the word that is central to their understanding of the word. So “horse” or “ox” or “donkey” are all reasonable applications of the word. In fact, any animal that could be fitted to bear a burden could also fit their definition. (Think bunny with a backpack!) To this group, the meaning of marriage is the commitment, rather than the people making the commitment.

My purpose here is not to justify the opposition of noun-people to non-heterosexual marriages, but to offer a way of understanding their perspective. They can’t see what we verb-people mean. By explaining how words can be thought of as nouns or verbs, as concrete, fixed ideas or abstract, process-centred concepts, we may be able to break down the communication barriers.

The marriage I witnessed to today would not even have met a noun-person’s definition of “wedding.” There were no bridesmaids, no groomsmaids, no aisle, no clergy, no hymns, no programs, no vows, no procession. The bride and groom carried in their 7-month-old baby as well as a bouquet, and the groom’s other two children walked with them. The bride’s father sang a song to open and another to close. Some of the children sang songs, some of the adults read messages or prayed aloud. Nothing was polished or rehearsed. The rest was utter stillness.

If you define “wedding” by all those outward trappings and notions, then there was no wedding today. But if you define it by the light in the bride and groom’s eyes, the tears in the eyes of others, in the depth of love in the prayers and songs offered, in the tender passion as the bride sang a song to her man, the circle of joy that surrounded them as they told the world they were henceforth husband and wife, then you will understand me when I say: The Lord of Love passed here today, and bound these two in marriage.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


I love the names of the Dissenter religions of the mid-1600s.

Ranters, Barrowers, Diggers, Muggletonians. Levellers, Seekers, Familists, Adamites. And mustn’t forget Quakers too.

Doing all this digging, levelling, seeking, ranting, barrowing, quaking and muggletonying to shake off the burden of old religion. Their job in history was to wrest control of Christendom from a medieval papacy, a secular Church of England, and a rabidly rigid Calvinism. And their role was not to go nicely, but to ride rough over entrenched ideologies.

It must have been a noisy and messy time, the past clashing with the future, and like all “future shock” stories, the old trying to beat back the new, with the new tossing its seeds out to wherever there was fertile ground. Arrests and torture, thundering sermons, great loud smacking of bibles, pamphlets in the streets. Ah, what it takes to draw down the establishment!

Religion follows a sort of historical evolution, and there are these periods of mass extinction or die-offs, like the 1500s and 1600s. And I think we’re in another one right now.

Modern Christianity is a confused mess, isn’t it? Nobody really knows what to do with it. Go back, go forward. Allow the new ideas, squash them instantly. Act in unity, take bold steps alone. Be political, shun politics.

And nobody under 40 is going anymore.

Last year, while I occasionally attended a United Church, it occurred to me what an anachronism “church” is. Here I was in a church next to a university theology school. Many of the congregation had PhD and MA degrees, and some of them were theology profs. Yet we still were arranged in the same seating plan developed back when the man-at-the-front was the only person who could read. Why did these PhDs and profs not speak? Why did they just sit silent, speaking only the rote words they were allowed, in the chantlike intonation of congregations? How could a thinking person not hate this?

Of course, the choir was also at the front, in their blue robes, singing lovely hymns in Latin to the accompaniment of that ancient instrument of torture, the church organ, then a solo in the coloratura soprano range after the sermon. We got to sing too, and that was part of the fun.

And I suspect this is what protestant church has turned into -- a show. A Sunday-morning inspirational performance for the elderly. The goal is to keep people coming, keep them watching, donating, hoping that something will change soon, hanging on out of fear of the emptiness that might replace it. And now, for the next part of our show…

Why is it still this way? Where is the evolution, the radical shoots that are supposed to rise up as traditional church dies off?

Surely not fundamentalism! Yes, there's their hip music scene, their Truth-R-Us clergy, their clever marketing and growth (in the US, though, not elsewhere!). But it strikes me as a frantic effort to prop up a dying thing, to make it look alive, what Thomas Carlysle called “our spasmodic efforts to believe that we believe.”

Besides, fundamentalism has George Bush and the neocons’ support. And any religious persuasion that has their support – well.

Quakers, then? New Agers? Or some kind of religious fusion – Wiccan Native, or Scientific Bahai, or Buddhist Judaism? Or formless religion, nameless spirituality?

I'm taking suggestions.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


I read the Toronto Star today while I was in a waiting room. The cover story was about Malawi. About a 10-year-old child whose mother had died two weeks earlier of AIDS and had been sick so long that she hadn't planted any food. The orphaned girl hadn't eaten anything since her mother's death. Neither had her 2-year-old brother. The baby was shrinking in size. The girl didn't know what to do. She was the head of the family now.

Malawi is in a famine. We hardly know about it because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Drought, mismanagement, disease, fighting, and corruption have caused this situation.

I donated to UNICEF, and I know that's what's needed right now. But there's more to it than just donations.

Somehow, in some way, I know we in the West are at least partly responsible for this situation.

I have a friend who teaches economics at Queen's University. I talked to her once about eliminating the Third World Debt. She frowned and shook her head. "You can't do that. Those governments are corrupt. They'll just use the money for themselves. We have to demand that they become honest first."

I pointed out to her that poverty causes corruption, not corruption causes poverty. A country can only stabilize itself with a middle class, with enough people who have enough to eat and enough security about the future to have time to be concerned about public affairs.

That idea had never occurred to her before.

I read another article on the same page of the newspaper -- a report from UBC that since the end of the Cold War, global deaths due to warfare have decreased dramatically. The Soviet Union and US have stopped funding proxy wars and dumping outdated weapons on Third World countries.

Again, the invisible hand of the West causing chaos and slaughter in weaker countries.

Jeffrey Sachs has written a book called The End of Poverty. The end of poverty could mean the end of corruption, the end of AIDS, the end of famine.

He is an economist too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Lloydminster, Truth, and Nuggets

Last night, CBC did a story on the town of Lloydminster, which straddles the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta. A line of tall orange pillars run through the centre of town to mark the division between the provinces.

On the one side, oil wealth, citizen dividend cheques, and ultraconservative politics -- and the swagger and pride that goes with it all. On the other, Canada’s most understated and progressive province, quiet in its convictions, hard-working without ever seeming to get ahead.

Apparently the 19th-century surveyors that originally marked out the town put the provincial boundary in the wrong place. They were off by a few hundred metres, which would move a few city blocks into Alberta.

Should the line be moved?

Forget it, say the politicians. It belongs where it is.

The story made me think about the dividing line between all things conservative and progressive. Only in prairie geography is this merely a line: everywhere else, it’s a gulf as wide as an ocean.

Progressives and conservatives can't communicate with each other because they speak different languages. Same words, different core concepts behind them.

The most crucial difference is in their concepts of truth. One side sees truth as a noun, a fixed concept like “cow” or “cabbage”, a nugget of fact that you can write down or memorize or enshrine. The other sees truth as a verb, a process of verifying and testing and comparing to come to a reasonable conclusion, of examining things for what they are, rather than what they ought to be.

For truth-as-a-noun people, a smart person is one whose head is stuffed with truth nuggets. For truth-as-a-verb people, a smart person is one whose head is empty -- except for tools.

It’s the difference between the static and the fluid, between materialism and stewardship, between product and process.

So when these two groups talk about scientific truths, they are in fact discussing entirely different things. Truth-as-a-noun people see science as nothing more than a group of facts agreed upon by scientists. For them, it’s possible to disagree with science and substitute another group of facts agreed upon by another group of people.

Whereas truth-as-a-verb people look at the process that created the science – the rigorous process of experimenting, duplicating, computing, and comparing, all to yield the best truths we are capable of. To truth-as-a-verb people, you cannot disagree with science: you can only disagree with the end nuggets, and only if you have the math and experiments to back yourself up.

Religions are either truth-as-a-noun or truth-as-a-verb.

People often ask me: What do Quakers believe?

They want me to give the list of nuggets.

I answer: They believe what they believe.

Which is true.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Red Eyes

Everyone has their one thing that they worry about. The thing that can keep them up at night, punching and repunching the pillow at 3 a.m., spilling over those midnight tears that never come at any other time.

Everyone has their one thing. Mine is my son.

I worry that he won't survive. I worry that maybe we're doing the wrong thing. Even in the daytime, quietly in the background of my mind as I go about my work, I am tense, waiting for the phone call that will come to say that something has happened, something irrevocable, something we can't fix no matter how hard we try.

I can't protect him all the time. I can't reshape the world so that he fits into it.

I ache from holding him in the Light.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Today after Meeting, I went shopping for Halloween, a task I always dread because I can't bear to give junk to young, growing bodies. (Isn't it terribly ironic that at Halloween, some people are worried about the possibility of poisons in the trans-fat, carcinogenic-fried, pancreas-destroying junkfood and candy their kids receive?)

This year, to my relief, I found cases of juice in drink-boxes on sale. At the bulk store, I also found rice krispie squares individually wrapped. Not exactly nutritious, but my conscience was eased.

I would not be poisoning any children at Halloween this year.

(But not my kids' consciences. They were slack-jawed, outraged. "Juice?! You're going to give out JUICE this year?!")

However, there's still the issue of tetrapacks. Drink-boxes have their shortcomings too. Sigh. There's just no escaping The Evil One at Halloween.

Drink-boxes happen to be one of my favourite metaphors. Many religions are drink-boxes. Someone sells you the package, and all you have to do is poke in the straw and suck it all in. You never see what you're drinking. But the package tells you it's everything you need. All the vitamins and minerals, complete in one package. No other drinks are necessary. This faith saves all, covers all, this book tells the whole story, no other book necessary. If you have any questions, these pamphlets provide you with all the answers. Just suck it all in.

However, no one ever explains what happens when you've finally sucked everything out, and the box runs dry. We know what becomes of spent drink-boxes. Recycling if they're lucky. And what if what's on the label isn't really what's in the box? How much are people supposed to just believe, without testing or seeking? Is blind faith really faith?

Not all religions are drink-boxes. Some of them are more like vessels -- coffee mugs or wine glasses. Refillable, reuseable, no shelf life.

But those religions are empty, the drink-box people cry! What good is a religion that doesn't give you the answers?

Ah, but the worth of a vessel religion is its emptiness. You have to seek what you will drink, find it, pour it in, see it, believe it, drink it. You also have to care for the vessel, keep it clean, keep it close at hand. Life in a vessel religion is a constant pouring in and drinking and emptying and pouring in again. There are times of thirst and wandering in the dessert, and there are times of wholeness, abundance and celebration.

But, the drink-box people argue, you could end up putting anything in that vessel— like toxins, concrete, or dirt— so it's better to have a real drink-box, the one true drink.

But how likely are you to put sand or arsenic in your own vessel? In a vessel religion, you are the guardian and keeper of the vessel. You watch what you pour into your soul. You know what it is experimentally.

The drink-box and vessel ideas applies as well to creative and intellectual efforts.

Science is a vessel. With the scientific method, we pour in experimental ideas, test them, compare them with others, then accept them, then clean out the method and use it again.

Facts are drink-boxes. They exist for a while, are disproved or superceded, and then are discarded.

Poetry is a vessel. The words sound empty until you pour something into them, and then they can touch your soul.

Rules are drink-boxes. They have a single purpose in a single context, often for a single person, irrelevant elsewhere.

Drink-boxes are a handy metaphor.

Our Meeting began as an empty vessel this morning. But after the first ministry, people began pouring out their thoughts and worships. The bowl brimmed and spilled over many times, and we all drank till our souls were filled.

And as if that weren't enough, there was potluck Shared Meal afterward!

Sunday, October 16, 2005


The cool fall weather gave way to a gorgeous day today in Southeastern Ontario. Warm sunshine, back into shorts. I had to spend the day outdoors.

I tended to the back lawn, which we hadn't mowed since August and had grown into a wild mop. Then I started cleaning out the garden: pulling out the now shrivelled tomato vines, the flopped-over beans, the yellow-flowered broccolis with sprawling mats of crabgrass hidden under their elephant-ear leaves. It's an end-of-summer ritual for gardeners, putting the beds to rest. There is always some sadness to this day, and especially this year, since the plants had flourished, and we had eaten abundantly.

I find it hard to watch the passage of time. Reminders of the turning seasons cry out from the great V's of geese, from the crimson and orange maples, from the frisson of frost beneath the sun's warm rays. And now, from the bare soil of my garden beds.

I visited with family over the Thanksgiving weekend and received some photos by email today. There was one of me, hovering over the family's newest baby, cooing into her rapt seven-week eyes.

Me, with crinkles around my eyes and deepened lines around my mouth. Me, with strands of grey that the camera picked up, despite colour rinses.

Me, showing the signs of the turning seasons.

I find it hard to watch. I pull out the stubborn roots of the cabbages with sympathy. I too want to grip the earth, continue to grow and be green.

I had always thought that by the time I had reached my 40s, I would have answers. But there's still an eerie silence where answers are supposed to be. I suspect that will be the same when I reach my 80s, if I'm lucky enough to live that long.

Working, playing, lovinge, solitude - turning like the four seasons.

…stretching our youth as we must
Until we are ashes and dust
Until time makes history of us.