Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I am a Christian

I am a Christian.

There, I've said it, I'm sure for the first time. Now why was it so hard to say -- as if I'm at an AA meeting or something? Why do I trip over the word? Why is it scary-feeling, as if I'm letting go of my brain?

When I first came to Quakers, I came to get away from all that. I remember my former meeting giving me a Faith and Practice book when I was accepted into membership. And I liked the book -- except for all the stuff about Jesus. And the stuff about God was a bit hard to take too, but I could afford to be more generous about it. Yet over time, I pencil-marked the book up, and even some of the Jesus parts got underlining.

Some years later, John Lampen's book, Twenty Questions About Jesus, that got me over the worst of the choking at the J word. It was the first reasoned look at Jesus' life and teachings I'd ever read. And I realized there were options here, that theology didn't require a lobotomy, that people like me did consider themselves Christian.

Another turning point was reading Stephen Mitchell's book, The Gospel According to Jesus, some years after that. Here I saw the humanity of Jesus, the Jewish boy born of an unwed mother, whose wounds became his Light. He became a person, a life story I could relate to. I decided then that I liked him.

After that, it became easier to face the words and ideas of Christianity. I could distinguish between the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Christ of John, Paul, and others -- and the FrankenGod of the Old Testament.

What tipped this over the edge was an article that Richard sent me (via this blog) on the difference between Christian and Jewish ideas about evil and forgiveness. And as I read it, I became awash in the awareness that I am a Christian, that I was part of the Christian side of his essay.

Never mind the theology. Never mind the rites of passage, salvation schemes, and unthinking dogmatism. I belong to this part of the world's spiritual journey, this chapter started by Jesus deliberately or nondeliberately, whose teachings have shaped us to work miracles in the world. The teachings had secretly, over time, without my knowing, become precious to me, a beacon that guides me.

It just kind of snuck up on me.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Space Needed

Our meeting had finally decided it was time to move, although late enough that the large group of newcomers had faded away and we were back down to our usual number.

Then we found the perfect space: a small, abandoned Christian Science church that had been bought up by a nonprofit that only used it on weekdays. It was the right amount of space in a nice neighbourhood surrounded by parks.

But after weeks of back-and-forth, they've informed us that if they rent space to us, Revenue Canada will revoke their charitable status. In short, according to the law, nonprofits can't rent out their property.

This is a major blow. Now we're back to Square One.

Our meeting isn't large enough to buy a building right now, although the city is large enough to support a large meeting. The problem has been the space we've been in: too small to allow the group to grow. That's why we're looking for larger space.

So we have to rent or enter some kind of shared arrangement. And it has to be on Sunday mornings because of the number of out-of-towners and border-crossers who come to the meeting.

Any suggestions where to look? What kind of organizations to contact?

Where do renting Quakers usually meet?

Thanks for any suggestions. I'm coming up dry here.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Jesus' Teachings

Don't be afraid.

Don’t be afraid to teach your elders.

Don’t be afraid to befriend the sick and the poor, the prostitutes, the tax-collectors, and the lepers.

Don’t be afraid to work miracles.

Don’t be afraid to walk on water.

Don’t be afraid to say in the light what you hear in the dark.

Don’t be afraid to welcome sinners to your table.

Don’t be afraid to drop your nets and follow me.

Don’t be afraid to live like the lilies of the field.

Don’t be afraid to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Don’t be afraid to turn the other cheek.

Don’t be afraid to forgive seventy times seven.

Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

And don’t be afraid to die.

Friday, January 20, 2006


The topic of being grounded in faith has passed around a few blogs lately. I've been thinking about it and came up with this list.

Why Quaker silent-meetings often don’t feel grounded in faith:

Reason #1.Because newcomers can teach and speak as much as seasoned Friends. Newcomer ministry adds freshness to the meeting and allows newcomers to grow into their spirituality. But it also means that many who teach and speak have no grounding in faith. They haven’t read books on religious theologies and teachings, haven’t thumbed occasionally through scriptures, haven’t learned Quaker and Christian history. Sure, this adds freshness. But it doesn’t strengthen a sense of a meeting’s being grounded in faith.

Reason #2. Because many silent-meeting Friends are not actively learning; thus, we are not on a faith journey: we are staying where we are. Quakers don’t have clergy, so the onus is on us to keep learning. We need to read, discuss, and consider new ideas, especially those we have rejected in the past and those that touch a nerve. We need to become our own spiritual authority. If a silent meeting doesn’t have adequate outlets for such learning, the meeting may end up feeling not grounded in faith.

Reason #3. Because many silent-meeting Friends are dedicated seekers without being dedicated finders. We welcome questions and sincerely probe our own spirituality, but we distrust answers, even the ones we find ourselves. It’s as if a part of us is saying, “I want to believe in something, but I’ll be damned if I’ll believe that!” We’re on a spiritual treadmill that we can’t escape. This can leave a meeting feeling ungrounded in faith.

Reason #4. Because faith is letting go, and silent-meeting Quakers are intellectuals. (Do any Quakers have less than a university education these days?) We know how to think and weight evidence, how to balance and test, but we don’t know how to free-fall, to trust in something unknowable, to follow something unseeable. The product of our rational age, something inside us whispers, “Mustn’t.” And we don’t.

Reason #5. Because we don't get to know each other. Anonymity can interfere in knowing one another in "that which is eternal," and that can in turn prohibit a "being known" to one another through the Spirit in the silence. (Thanks to Liz for this one)

Reason #6: ...?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sons of Al Qaeda

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the Khadr family, mainly because Omar Khadr is so much in the news lately.

Omar Khadr is the Canadian boy who has been held in Guantanamo Bay and is now on military trial. He was taken prisoner in Afghanistan when he was 15. He is 19 now. He has been charged with causing the death of an American soldier and may face life in prison, though the prosecution originally was arguing for the death penalty. Omar is in the news daily, at least here in Canada, as we await what unfolds for him. For reasons that probably had to do with the Mad Cow Disease controversy and softwood lumber dispute, the Canadian government did not negotiate this boy’s release, as Britain and Australia did for their citizens, much to our shame.

Omar is one of six children of Ahmed Said Khadr, an Al-Qaeda member who was killed in a shoot-out in Pakistan. Ahmed Khadr was Canadian, though he was living in Afghanistan with his wife and family. They lived in close connection with the bin Laden family.

Ahmed’s wife Maha has returned to Canada with the youngest son, Abdul Karim, who was injured in the same shootout that killed his father. He is paralysed from the waist down. His mother returned to Canada to get better health care for him. There was a bit of an uproar when she returned, for obvious reasons. However, her rights were guaranteed as a Canadian citizen. Despite her husband’s apparent terrorist activities, she does not appear to have been directly involved. However, she is still quite loyal to her husband’s memory and to his politics and has made very pro-terrorist statements on television. She has lost a great deal--husband, son's health, son's freedom, son's love--and she has become hardened by that loss. There is also a younger daughter, Mariam, though I don’t know what her situation is.

The elder daughter, Zaynab, has also returned to Canada. She is also very devoted to her father’s memory and to his politics. Her computer has been comfiscated by police, but they couldn’t find anything on it that was directly incriminating. In television interviews, she has come across as angry about her father’s death and defensive about his anti-Americanism/anti-Westernism.

The eldest son Abdullah (25) has just returned to Canada after being released from a secret prison in Pakistan. It’s not known who held him or why he was released. However, the US immediately demanded an extradition so that they can charge him with terrorist-type crimes. Abdullah is currently in custody in a Canadian prison. Since it’s against Canadian law to extradite anyone who might face death or torture in another country, Abdullah will be able to use this law to prevent or indefinitely delay the extradition. However, he’ll remain in prison while he does so.

The middle son Abdurahman (21) returned to Canada two years ago in a flurry of controversy. He later appeared on television (CBC/PBS documentary “Son of Al Qaeda”) to say that he had been arrested by the US military in Afghanistan and then paid by the CIA to become a spy (or else face penalties). He was brought to Guantanamo Bay, tortured as much as the other prisoners, and grilled daily on what he had found out. He was later released to do missions in other Muslim countries, some of them extremely dangerous. Because of the risks to his life, Abdurahman wanted out and called his grandmother to secure his return to Canada (the US military had taken his passport). The US military and CIA have not denied Abdurahman’s claims, so his story is probably true. However, he is now estranged from his family, who consider him a traitor.

That’s the family. That’s their life: someone always in jail, someone always watching their every move, always fear.

I think this is what is meant by the expression: "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons." The father led the family into this situation. The kids had to do what they were told. They grew up in an Al Qaeda camp surrounded by a bizarre value system. When war broke out and afterward, they each did what they had to in order to survive.

Does it make any sense to go after these people to put them in prison? Will it in any way stop the flurry of terrorist activity in the world?

It makes me think about hijacking. You can hijack a plane. You can hijack people’s minds and souls to get them to fly those planes. You can hijack a religion--or a democracy.

You can also hijack children’s lives and hold them hostage forever.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Different Song, Please

I was at choir rehearsal last night. We came to the song I never get to sing. It never fails. We get halfway through and come to that line about “the will to go on, go on.” And my breath stops, it clenches, I choke it all back. And I listen to the words assault me.

Late at night, I hear it singing,

Then again when I wake at dawn.

And it fills me up with hope and good will,

The will to go on, go on…

There is a river in Judea that I heard of long ago

And it’s a singing, ringing river that my soul cries out

To know.

Three of us who sing together in the second sopranos, we’re all mothers of Asperger children. I mean, what are the odds, right? We also drive to choir together. Sometimes we talk about it, joke a little, congratulate each other on small gains. For once, we don’t need to explain, to apologize.

I spent the afternoon today with a woman who called me for help about her son. Like I’m an expert. I listened to her, the long list of her programs and efforts and specialists, admiring her control over her facial muscles and voice as she talked about her fears and the fruitlessness of her efforts. And about her son’s bewilderment at the constant daily failure of everything he tries, the constant constant constant daily failure of his everything. About where it was all going.

Like I knew.

When I got home, I sat outside on the back deck staring at the snow till it grew dark.

I thought about us, about the shipwrecks of our careers and dreams, and the heavy heavy weight of our children. No matter how hard we try. What lies ahead?

I don’t have any answers. I never do. I just have questions.

So much of life is just carrying on.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Weighty Friends were absent from Meeting today. And the clerk was downstairs doing first-day school. So the silence was loose and scattered somehow. You can feel the room: no one had anything to say, everyone was trying to get deep into some thought. Or so I thought. Maybe I was right.

A copy of Advices & Queries and F&P were on the central table, just outside my reach. I could read a query, help people focus and centre down. But should I? I had no quivering sense of a leading, no nudge. Just an urgency to break a skim-milk silence, pour something into it.

Is it a leading to want to rescue a Meeting?

Should I? Or should I not?

A new attender arrived a bit late, one who had told me on occasion that she feels she gets nothing from Meeting when no one speaks. I feel uncomfortable.

Someone’s gotta say something.

After a few minutes, she got up and took both the A&Q and F&P to her seat. She began leafing through them, taking matters into her own hands.

I sensed an uncertainty in the room, whether she should be reading or not.

Should she? Shouldn’t she?

Restless, I pulled a pamphlet from the shelf beside me. Something by Rufus Jones. The first excerpt said little to me. The second was more promising.

Should I?

Still no one had said anything.

I read it out loud. It was an essay about Psalm 1, how we grow like a tree. That we work too hard, that growth is silent, invisible, like the lilies. That growth needs water, soil, sun. And we are the soil, the farm, while the Spirit is the rain. How the Kingdom is not like a great event, but like a mustard seed, small, needing to be planted, but then it grows.

No one spoke afterward. The silence had changed somewhat, maybe more focused. A few legs crossed and uncrossed. The new attender had put the book down. She was deep in thought now.

My thoughts focused on images of trees and seeds. I imagined a new type of communion service, except instead of bread and wine, the priest would hand out a single mustard seed to chase with a glass of water. Take this, eat it, and let it grow.

To speak or not to speak. It always seems like a good idea at the time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Quakers and Sacraments

My favourite religious movie is Life of Brian. In one of my favourite scenes in this my favourite movie, Brian loses a sandal as he is walking, and his followers snatch it up reverently, crooning:

“He has given us a sign! Let us follow his example. Let us like him hold up one shoe, and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign, and all who follow Him shall do likewise!” They all remove a sandal, tie it to a stick, and carry it for the rest of their lives.

Such is my take on sacraments.

However, the topic of sacraments has come up on two Quaker blogs in this network this week. And I can’t help wanting to jump into the fray.

I know about sacraments. I should. I was born and raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school. I don’t have any resentment about my spiritual upbringing (in fact, I thought it was rather good because it got me where I am now: of course, the nuns might not agree), but I’m just saying that I know what sacraments are and what they’re not.

The French church where I grew up had a priest that rode a motorcycle. He eventually ran off and married the church secretary, but that's another story. He used to take the whole gang of us teenagers out ice-fishing during the winter. Afterward, he did mass around a fire at the shoreline or inside someone’s cottage. If someone caught a fish, it was used for the communion instead of the bread. “Just as good,” he used to say, ”and much fresher.” Sometimes, the fish was used in addition to the bread. “Loaves and fishes,” he would say, “Jesus’ secret recipe to feed thousands.”

(A big however: Not all Catholics “get” sacraments, even though that’s all they do. I knew a guy who used to keep holy water in the freezer – so it would stay holy longer!)

I have also been to protestant versions of the bread-and-wine sacrament. And I can tell you right now: they don’t get it. For Catholics, it’s the whole song-and-dance, smells-and-bells routine leading up to the eucharist – the mystical words, the drone, the silences, the kneeling, the layers of spirituality that descend one after another – it’s all this that makes the “communion” thing happen. But Protestantism is a verbal religion. You know: talking heads, word recitations, follow the book, even yelp and holler, otherwise don’t move (My seven-year-old daughter calls them “the noisy Christians”). The holiness is in the words, not the symbols. So, alas, most of the time when they get to the bread-and-wine event, they talk the thing to death. Then it’s not communion: it’s just snack.

You see, communion is something you have to do and be; it’s not something you take. It’s also not something you can just staple to the side of a service or a religion that has nothing to do with it, as if it just does the thing all by itself. Trust me, it takes the whole knee-numbing hour to get there.

So do Quakers need sacraments?

We already have one. Quaker silence is the sacrament. It’s a ritual as ritualistic as sandals on a stick or wafers dunked in wine, and it takes about as long. We enter the meeting and surrender ourselves entirely to listening to the Spirit, becoming one with It and each other, with all the vulnerabilities, fears, and trembling that go with it. That’s what’s meant by “com + union.” That’s also why we’re called Quakers.

Sacrament is a concept, not a thing. It’s a verb, not a noun. The Quaker sacrament of silence is an all-encompassing verb. It allows us to commune together and with God, and to take that communion out with us into the world, to see ourselves as part of a holy whole. It gives us the discipline to discern leadings and minister to each other. So our silence as a sacrament is not stapled to the side of our religion: it is a vital, life-giving foundation. Without that regular sacramental silence, ours skills of discernment and listening would atrophy away. Soon anything would sound like a leading: a sermon on the radio, a speech by a president, a news documentary. We would become swayed by popular ideologies that run counter to the plain teachings of the Spirit.

The sacramentalness of Quaker process is evident in the ease with which Catholics blend into our traditions. At my last Meeting, we occasionally invited nuns in to help lead special meetings on spiritual topics. My current regional gathering meets at a Catholic centre, and the staff join in. My Catholic friends understand what a Quaker meeting is.

My born-again protestant friends are mystified by it. They don’t know why I bother going, they can’t see the point. “It’s kind of like going to church, except you’re spiritually naked,” I explain. Helpfully. Their eyes cross.

I rest my case.

George Fox’s point in chucking out sacraments was that the spiritual unity and vulnerability and holiness that one feels in a sacrament is not in the bread and wine, nor in the water, nor even the words: it’s in the person’s spirit approaching that sacrament. Sometimes it takes all week to get to meeting, if you know what I mean. (David M says Yes, I know what you mean!) But if we start early enough, we get there often enough.


Having said all this and before I drift into more pointless stories from my childhood, I should bring up two caveats: The first is the difference between “rites of passage” and “sacraments.” Rites of passage occur at key transitions in life (e.g., birth, marriage, death), when we feel the need to touch the Spirit in a sort of holy “high-five” in passing. These we do not as fixed rites, but as outpourings of the Spirit. Our baby welcomings, weddings, and memorial meetings are quite different from fixed religious rituals that purport to have the power to make God-things happen.

Second caveat: While the fluid, in-the-moment, living-Spirit-whispering-in-my-ear qualities of Quaker life render sacraments superfluous, they don’t precisely exclude sacraments – because they don’t precisely exclude anything.

Many years ago, one of the Canadian Quaker gatherings met at a Catholic retreat centre. The centre’s priest was part of the gathering. At the opening of the weekend, he invited anyone to come and talk to him at any time privately as they wished. The weekend ran smoothly, and at the wrap-up, the priest thanked everyone for a deep and spiritual weekend. But he added that every person at the gathering had come to talk to him privately. And every one had asked him for the same thing -- absolution.

This was a confusing story to me when I first heard it offered in Meeting, and it’s still hard to wrap my mind around. Were these Friends actively seeking out a sacrament? And what on earth for?

But I understand now that for Quakers, sacraments exist in time, in specific moments, in feeling that the Spirit was nudging right then, right there. In that weekend, the Friends gathered had felt a hunger to be relieved of the burden of sin, all those sins of omission and commission and of fear and failure. In true openness of Spirit, they searched for and found the humility to say before another person, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Life is hard. We don’t know the way. We stumble in the dark. Forgive us.

It wasn’t about not being Quaker. It wasn’t about following rules. It wasn’t about liking or not liking sacraments or believing or not believing in the priest’s power to forgive. It was about that moment, that sense of burden, that hunger for release.

Yes, I understand.

And that understanding came to me during silence.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Good-bye 2005

Gleanings and ideas from posts and news stories this year:

1. Democracy is in crisis. Secrecy has replaced transparency, unilateralism has replaced public approval, and violence has replaced negotiation and UN direction. We need democratic renewal, which may require major changes to our institutions.

2. The end does *not* justify the means. The means simply determines the end. Whatever path you take, that's where you are going.

3. Religion and politics do not mix well, not even for religious people. What passes as religious government is usually a legalistic, non-spiritually-driven quest for personal power. The separation of religion and state is vital for democracy.

4. Meeting isn't always the most effective place for being Quaker. In fact, Meeting can be downright unpleasant at times. But at other times, the Voice gets through. So somehow Quakerism seems to work in spite of itself.

5. Those who follow the example of Christ sometimes have to pay for it with their lives. But this is how the Light gets passed on. We admire such courage and both hope and dread that we might have such courage some day.

6. Nature is not nice. Rather than a commodity that must be treasured, it is a force that must be obeyed. It gives and it takes. When we disobey nature, we have forgotten who we are--and we will be reminded.

7. Old texts, old traditions, and old events sit gathering dust in the attics of our minds and cultures. Yet when the new fails to provide answers, these can be useful for setting us on new paths.

8. Sometimes the God-in-the-sky seems so far away that we can't find it or know it, let alone follow it. But there is that within us that guides us. There is "that of God" in others that guides us as well.

9. To hear the Light is to receive a task. Often we fear these tasks.

10. We have much to learn from each other. By treating everyone like the messenger, we get the message.

Happy New Year.