Tuesday, October 31, 2006

November Bla

There was a book of poems about the months of the year that we used to read to the kids when they were little. The poem for November ended:
Rough November
Tough November
I have had enough November.
It's been November here for over a month now. Southern Ontario skipped the pretty part of fall and plunged right into the chill, the wind, the rain, the sleet, and the relentless gloom.

I find myself thinking about leaving our meeting.

Maybe it's because of November.

Numbers are down at our meeting. Last Sunday, there were only two children there (both mine), and maybe a dozen adult members, and I had to take the children's program because it was the coordinator's week off.

Since we moved into the new building over the summer, I have gotten the meeting to arrange the chairs into concentric squares instead of a single circle, because the square arrangement allows for more rows, and the open corners allow people to move into the middle rows; whereas a circle is a closed, unaccommodating shape. But Sunday, they had arranged the chairs in a circle again. So when my children came back from the children's program, they didn't see chairs available to them, so they didn't even want to come in the room. Someone had also decided to leave most of the lights off -- maybe to save electricity -- which meant with the late afternoon gloom, the room was in semi-darkness. Hardly welcoming to a child.

Or maybe it was just too close to Halloween.

I'm tired of explaining again and again that we've moved to a bigger place to make the meeting more open to newcomers, that we need to leave many chairs empty, and that we need to break up the "circle" idea. At the first opportunity, back it goes.

And then I feel weary of it all.

My efforts over the past several months to start up learning programs (at the request of several members) have also all fizzled. We had managed to run a study group for about 10 weeks last spring, and it was great while it lasted. Then I got the meeting started on after-meeting discussions into the late spring and summer, which lasted about two months. Time constraints had conspired against these efforts, I was told. Now I'm trying to get the group up on a team blog for an exchange of thoughts, ideas, readings, etc., but I'm not meeting with much success.

People seem to think it is "just one more thing that I have to do."

I continue to go to meeting because there are a few Friends that I learn from and several that I care about. Moreover, I kind of feel as if things will start to fall apart if I leave. Maybe that's a puffed-up sense of my own importance, but I do a lot to keep things going. As well, we have three new people out to meeting, all of them young (under 25). So I feel a responsibility to stay.

And yet, I'm restless for something with a bit more umph, some edge and drive.

Yes, there is a sort of spiritual laziness that we can associate with Friends. Being Quaker consists of being very nice, supporting good causes in pro-active ways, and being at Meeting on Sunday, whether you have anything to offer to the meeting in the way of spiritual health, depth, learning, or vocal ministry, or not. We tend to limit Quakerism to what we already are and already think. We do what we've always done. We leave the spiritual leadership to someone else and just hope it comes on Sunday.

But then, what religions are so different? The churches-of-the-holy-hootenanny make a lot more noise, but are they any less spiritually lazy? Anybody can shout Halleluiah. Anybody can play follow the leader, repeat what the leader says, think what the leader thinks. Drink-box religions aren't much different: just stick in the straw and suck it all in. You don't even need to read the label or question what's inside. They do all the packaging for you. And the mainstream churches work at being earnest, at playing "let's pretend" about their traditions and beliefs, when they just don't believe them anymore. Maybe it looks like the people are making spiritual effort, but I suspect there's not much going on there.

At least when (unprogrammed) Quakers do nothing, they have the decency to make it look like doing nothing.

And all churches have difficulty with change. Even changing the colour of the hymnbook or the choir robes is enough to send a quarter of a congregation packing. And churches that introduce that handshake thing or the kiss of peace, well, they can kiss their congregations good-bye.

So if I left Quakers, where would I go? Is there a religion that is not encumbered by silly poor gospels and by the people who adhere to them? Is there a religion where people don't flee from learning, hiding behind rituals or dogmas, quotes or preachers?

I suspect that creative, forward-thinking religion is very rare. And it's scary too -- too many deep, difficult questions to probe. Who really wants to rip off their layers of protective skin to stand naked in the November winds of unanswerable questions? Not many, I suspect.

American author Annie Dillard says if we had any real faith, we'd wear hardhats to church/meeting -- after all, we are calling on or getting in touch with the very forces of the universe. The universe might come crashing down on our heads.

Imagine church pews or Quaker benches equipped with seatbelts.

So yes, I'm thinking again about leaving and wondering if there is any place to go.

Or maybe it's just November.

If it's November, then that isn't so good, because there's at least another month of it to go.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Shoeboxes for Soldiers

My son's Cub troop is being asked to fill two shoeboxes with little gifts to send to the 50 soldiers from our city who are stationed in Afghanistan over Christmas. The troop leader is retired military, and so is her husband. They're very nice people -- and living in a military town, you get used to being around soldiers. In fact, two members of our meeting are soldiers. In her eyes, this is just a nice gesture to do for people who are far away from home.

However, there is the rather significant problem that I can't support this Afghanistan mission, nor do I think it's going to succeed. Two other parents are in the same uncomfortable situation -- that I know of. The majority of Canadians have never been behind this mission, so the likelihood that other parents feel as I do is high.

However, the other side is that soldiers are simply human beings, stuck in a wretched situation. There is the issue of "that of God" in those soldiers as well. Does it do harm to send them some gifts? Also, I don't want to single out my kid from the troop as the one who wouldn't support the project, nor do I want to offend the troop leader, who is trying to get the group to do a "good deed."

We are being asked to send things like gum, candy, shaving tools, Tim Hortons coupons (I guess they had to open a Tim Hortons in Kandahar for the Canadian soldiers to deal with doughnut deprivation -- go figure), wet naps, used paperbacks, jerky, febreeze, chapstick, and then add a message of support.

I don't really know how to handle this.

I'm open to suggestions.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Meeting Blog

One of the conclusions from our last Outreach Committee meeting is that we need an online version of our meeting as well as a "live" version on firstdays. I suggested a team blog, with some of the members/attenders registered as team members (as many as would want to), and others merely readers and commenters. The online version would offer these advantages:
  • It would allow us to keep in spiritual touch with members who can't make it to meeting. They can come to the online meeting whenever they have time and simply read, reflect, and comment instead of sitting with us.
  • It would allow us to make spiritual contact with visitors to our website (assuming they follow the link to our blog). This is a form of outreach, even if those people never come out to our meeting.
  • It would foster spiritual growth and learning, something that is sadly lacking in many liberal Friends meetings. It would allow us to get to know each other in that which is eternal.
  • It would keep our batteries charged during the week so that we don't come to meeting on firstday completely drained and hoping for a jumpstart. If we learn, reflect, read, explore and question at least once during the week, we'll have something inside to bring to meeting.
  • It would avoid the confrontational nature of listservs and forums and be more conducive to reflection, prayer, poetry, stories, queries, etc.
At least, that's the theory.

The reality is -- oh, dear God, getting Quakers to do anything online!

A couple of very plucky older-folks have made some efforts, but they're still not sure what a blog is, and I haven't succeeded in getting them registered. They haven't successfully made a comment anywhere yet either. (If you get an incoherent anonymous comment sometime over the next couple of weeks, suspect it's coming from one of my flock!)

So far, the "younger" set say they are currently "too busy" to get online, just as they are often "too busy" to come to meeting. I want to say "all the more reason to do it, because this way you'll have a place of spiritual rest and rejuvenation when you can't get to meeting" and "all the more reason to do it, because you can't keep going at this frenetic pace."

One person told me she doesn't have anything to blog about -- and I want to say "all the more reason to do it so that you live up to the Light you have and get more granted to thee." Have nothing to blog about! I mean, jeesh -- What canst thou say?

Anyway, some day, maybe weeks from now, when I have a good half-dozen of them registered and something is actually happening on that blogsite, I'll post a link to it from here. Then maybe some of you can give a comment or two, just to encourage them?

They're gonna need it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Christmas Materialism (again)

I had lunch with a friend R. today, the co-clerk of our meeting. We got talking about Christmas, since one of the outreach ideas that came out of today's Outreach Committee meeting was to do some newspaper advertising to promote non-material alternatives to the Christmas orgy of buying stuff.

R. told me how her family (a nice, church-going extended family that includes cousins and their children as well as the grandparent generation) doesn't know what Christmas is without the presents. When she suggested this weekend that the adult members stop exchanging gifts, her own mother started to cry, saying she was ashamed that she had raised a daughter who didn't know the real meaning of Christmas.

R's own brother goes into debt some $2G every year to prove to the rest of the family that he can keep up with them. The rest of family is generally very well off. For the adult gift exchange, they have set the recommended spending amount at $250. That's $250 per person -- so a couple, such as K. and her husband, have to cough up $500. And this is for gifts for far wealthier adults. What meaning could this possibly have?

R. and her husband don't, of course, spend all this money, because they don't have it. Just finishing up an M.Div. degree with three children and a husband on a military salary, she can't afford materialism. Does the family not know that her brother suffers under these spending expectations, and that R. can't afford it at all? Do they not know that they are causing suffering insteading of spreading peace and joy?

How many other families are dragged under by the material expectations of Christmas? How many parents dread Christmas because of the financial strain it represents and the desperate choices they have to make?

Can we not help to free our culture from this torture?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Querying Evangelism

There is a United Church minister in Toronto who took an empty downtown church and filled it by doing a reverse evangelism. Traditional evangelism has people within the church "selling" or "marketing" the church to the unchurched. The idea is that "church" is a package of goods and services that can be sold or marketed and bought at the other end. The church provides the package, the evangelized are the buyers.

Cheri Dinovo's type of evangelism goes the other way. The outsiders evangelize to the church. They teach, we listen. They have more to teach us about suffering, love, neglect, peace, violence, inhumanity, etc. than we have to teach them. We seek them out so that we can remain a church.

Dinovo spent time walking into the rougher neighbourhoods listening to people, bringing them into her church, not to follow but to lead. One person that had a big impact on her congregation was a cross-dresser drug addict who became the music director. She eventually died of an overdose. Dinovo points out that street people and poor people die a lot, so her church does a lot of funerals. But her church is filled with these kinds of people, sitting beside average families. This church requires a lot of close supervision to deal with potential situations -- so they provide it. They don't use the need for more supervision as an excuse not to let these people evangelize to them.

Dinovo's point is that the real preachers, movers, message-bearers always come from the margins of society. Jesus did, so did John the Baptist. If movers and shakers do come from within our congregations, we have a regrettable tendency to kick them out. Consider Lucretia Mott, George Fox, William Penn, John Woolman. The real evangelism comes from the outside in.

Churches do too much talking and too little learning and listening. Certainly, Quakers are a little different because everyone is equally a minister, and anyone can give ministry in Meeting. There is less of a marketable "package" to Quakerism. Yet our meetings have remarkably few drug addicts, street dwellers, runaways, etc. When we do outreach to these marginalized groups, it's usually to provide them with physical necessities, often through a third-party group.We have an arm's length approach to the very poor and unfortunate, perhaps not conscious, but it's still there.

Yet Jesus sat with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, thieves, fishmongers. He didn't market his religion to them; he just listened to them, accepted them. He used washing to symbolize to them that their "sins" wash away like water, making them just as good as the "righteous" people. His message was: You're good enough the way you are - be one of my apostles.

I will ponder this idea over the Thanksgiving weekend so that I can talk clearly about it at the outreach committee meeting on Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Broken Windows

All I can think about is little blondeAmish girls in pigtails and pinafores. And the horror. Will the nightmare of violence never end?

My husband says it's because of a climate of violence. With terrorist attacks and counter attacks, fears, wars, torture stories, prisons, hate demonstrations, violence in television shows, in movies, on the news, in music -- our culture has become saturated with images and messages of violence.

It's called the Broken Windows Theory. If cars parked along a street in a rough neighbourhood are all in good shape, nothing is likely to happen to any of them. But if one car has one broken window, then in a short time, all the cars will get smashed to bits. The existence of violence invites other violence, and as each invites more, it builds to a frenzy.

It's like the disintegration of our civilization. This is the fatal flaw in the notion of a "right" to bear arms -- because arms have only one purpose: to kill people. There's no other way to dress it up. If you have a "right" to bear arms, you will eventually have no other rights. Rights are the opposite of the rule of violence.

The last thing I want to do is to forgive the screwed-up, hate-filled, self-centred b****** that did this. Yet I know that's what the families will do. The Amish forgive sins to stop the cycle of violence. They repair the windows, even if it kills them to do it.

I wish I were more like them.

Instead, all I feel is insane grieve for the families, for the little girls, and for our tortured, bleeding world.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I lived in Central America in the 1980s. Mostly Costa Rica, where I had a teaching post, but I travelled around. I saw a lot of dirt roads, a lot of villages, lakes, pebbly rivers, jungle canopies, roadside shrines.

On this day, we were driving on a backroad through the jungle. It wasn't dense jungle, because I can still picture it -- there was a lot of grass around, so we must have been near some fincas. The memory stands out because we were in a car. Usually, we were in a bus, a cattle truck, or on foot. Alan Dixon from Ottawa Meeting was with me, as were some Friends from the States, someone, at least, who had access to a car.

As we put-putted along the road heading to wherever we were going (and I confess now that I can't remember -- we did travel a lot), we saw an elderly North American woman walking alone along the roadside. We drove up to her and offered her a ride (we gringos tended to stick together). She accepted and we scrunched over to make room for her.

As we drove along, we chatted about who we were, where we were going, etc. She was 75. Her husband had died not too long ago, and she was spending her time travelling around since his death. Alone. I found that remarkable. Costa Rica was a fairly safe place back then, but there was a US-backed war going on in the north against Nicaragua, and Noriega was in power in Panama, not to mention the military repression in El Salvador and Guatemala. She had been to all those places. Alone. There was a serenity to her face that I found remarkable, tinged with grief and maybe loneliness too, but still a remarkable face.

I asked her how much longer she was planning to travel. She answered: Another 25 years.

We had come up to the place where we needed to drop her off, a little dirt road heading down to a remote village, where apparently she had a place to sleep for the night. Before she left, I asked her what her secret was. She smiled and answered: Whatever it is that you are most afraid of, that is what you must do next. Put your fears always behind you.

Then she was gone.

How many times in the years since then I have not known what to do, I have been in a dilemma, I have been afraid, I have known what tasks I had to do but couldn't face doing them -- her words have guided me. I have always known what to do next -- whatever it was that I most feared.

I've told her story many times, in many meetings, to many friends/Friends. And now I pass it on again.