Tuesday, June 4, 2013

In the now

I got a cavity in my wisdom tooth filled two weeks ago, the morning after my birthday. It was unpleasant, but I'm still feeling an element of gratitude for part of the experience. After the dentist fitted my mouth with a dental dam and a lot of hardware, I didn't have much to do besides lie there.  And imagine how things could go wrong. So of course I did. It didn't hurt, but it could hurt, and the anxious mind was right there.

After calming myself, working on deeper breaths, ramping myself up again, and repeating a few times, I eventually found myself in a state of calm. An unexpected feeling of peace washed over me, which nearly totally extinguished the anxiety. In retrospect, it felt quite a lot like I imagine George Fox's Ocean of Light washing over the Ocean of Darkness. It felt like a presence, and that all would be just fine in the end.

Of course everything was fine. And the next evening I was starting to worry about something at work, and realized I was ramping myself up a bit. And I was able to recall and re-establish just about the same sense of peace.

This last weekend in Meeting, I realized I had characterized the feeling as "relax, everything will be OK." But a more accurate sense is actually, "relax. Everything is OK."

This is a bit of a pattern for me; I spend so much time planning and thinking about the future that I ignore where I am right now. This blog post comes after sitting and meditating on a feeling I woke up with- a sense of joy at the thinness of separation between the worlds. (Which worlds? I'm not sure. Pick your favourite you'd like to be near, I suppose.)

And perhaps be in the now- with nothing but a thin separation separating you from it.

Monday, May 13, 2013


Membership in the Religious Society of Friends is a peculiar discipline. We become Members of the Society, but attachment is nearly universally through a Monthly Meeting. For some Friends, becoming a member feels unnecessary after years of attending and contributing to Meeting. At one point years ago, I went through the question myself: "non-Members are only restricted from serving in a few roles such as Clerk, so why bother?" But many Friends, including me today, would articulate membership with the Meeting as a statement of the mutual relationship and commitment one to another- a deliberate step to take on one's life-long spiritual journey.

And for Friends who are unable to hold a Membership with a community where they live, the absence of Membership can be a painful lack.

As discussed elsewhere including my last blog post, Friends who are in a transitional stage of life have particular need for faith community support. This support can extend beyond sympathetic understanding and fellowship. We Friends have clearness committees in order to use our spiritual discipline of discerning God's will for us in our lives. People in transition, making major life decisions, have particular need for clearness committees- and are particularly challenged in finding such support after they have moved away from the people who know them well, or even away from any Quakers.

Before they leave home, Young Friends who grew up in the Society of Friends have particular challenges- they are navigating the transition of becoming an adult within the context of the Meeting where they grew up. I've spoken with a variety of Friends with concerns on this. They note that their Meeting may, despite best intentions, persist in treating the young adult as the child they once were. For birthright Friends, leaving their home Meeting might feel as critically important as leaving their family home. Additionally, membership for birthright Friends is often pro-forma. At a certain preset age (defined in Canadian Yearly Meeting as "upon maturity," between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, at discretion of the Monthly Meeting), the young adult is asked by their Meeting if they wish to automatically transition onto the adult membership list. There is usually no clearness process. This works fine for some Young Friends, but others wish they had a formal clearness committee to discuss their connections to Meeting and understandings of Quaker ways, and to mark their adulthood in the Meeting.

The Meeting I was first part of, Ithaca Meeting, is blessed with many young people, and has had what I think is a very wise approach toward teens growing into adulthood- their "Out of the Nest and Into the World" program (http://www.nyym.org/pubs/net/dec99.html) Briefly, a teen will request a clearness committee, an adult mentor who is not related to them, and embark on a service project outside Ithaca. After their project's conclusion, the Meeting will celebrate the teen's transition to adult membership, and the teen may indeed then find their gifts considered by Nominating committee! Could this program be fruitful for other Meetings with teenagers approaching adulthood?

As I noted in my last blog post, for some Friends in transition, other Quaker bodies are more like their spiritual home than the Monthly Meeting they grew up in. These can be among their most stable lasting connections after leaving home, for fellowship and possibly for spiritual support, from afar and in-person at perhaps lengthy intervals.

In the same way for all Friends, strong connection to Quaker bodies outside a Monthly Meeting can be sustaining and enriching. I had an important opening a few years back when I realized that, given sufficient Light and prompting by Spirit, we might consider this as traveling in the Ministry. We travel, connect deeply, and then return home to our Meeting with the fruits of this connection, be it a sense of "batteries recharged," new ideas, or perhaps old ideas seen in new Light.

I believe one of the fruits of the Spirit is exposure to Friends who are different from us- and also at times being with peers who are in whatever ways quite similar to us; be it similarities of age and life-experience, or in social class, or urban vs. rural life, or faith history, or racial background, or sexual orientation or gender identity. It seems quite important to me that I have both, at various times- the difference, as well as the similarities. Having both feels fairly important- both to me as an individual, and to the balance within a Meeting. So many of our Meetings lack much diversity at all, and this feels a great deficiency.

Considering all of the above, I think we are due to re-visit how we treat membership and belonging. I note the proposal by Young Friends of Canadian Yearly Meeting to extend membership to Quaker bodies other than Monthly Meetings, such as to Yearly Meetings, Half-Yearly Meetings, or any other body that the Friends feel is their spiritual home. This feels like a strong invitation to engage with- it feels much like a statement of "We would like a deeper faith and connection. How can we do this together?"

Canadian Yearly Meeting's Discipline Review Committee has proposed that instead of "transitional membership" as suggested by Young Friends of CYM, that any Meeting (such as a Half-Yearly Meeting, Young Friends YM, Allowed Meetings) could hold membership if they can: convene a membership committee, be in relationship with the person requesting membership, fulfil the administrative tasks of a Meeting toward membership, including holding a Meeting for Business for the approval of membership, keeping minutes, filing statistical reports with Yearly Meeting, and responding to requests for traveling letters as well as financial assistance.

Their proposal adds additional clarity for me, partly in the form of questions: Does convening a membership committee and filing statistical reports with Yearly Meeting fulfil the heart of the commitment to members of the society? What constitutes being in a relationship with the person requesting membership?

I am convinced that a particular form of relationship with members is necessary: the relationship of ongoing mutual accountability. The challenge is in doing this with a geographically diffuse Meeting where its members meet face-to-face once or twice a year, or perhaps less frequently.

How might CYM's membership proposal be fleshed out to become complete? It should support Friends in geographic and other forms of isolation, Friends with strong connection to non-local Meetings, and Friends who want a formal membership relationship while they are in a transitional period of life. It should strengthen the Meetings as well as its members.

I believe that building ongoing relationship and mutual accountability is only possible if there is frequent contact. I wonder if this could be accomplished with the use of audio and video conferencing.

I currently have a care committee, consisting of two members from my Meeting, and one Friend from another Meeting a few hours drive away. We regularly met by conference-call, and this has worked well for us. My Monthly Meeting holds our Ministry and Council meetings with speaker-phone and conference-call in order to include members of our two worship groups, whose members are forty-five minutes or two hours' drive away from the main Meeting. This has been embraced by Friends concerned about the environmental effects of driving long distances in automobiles; and is additionally helpful in the winter, when it allows for M&C meetings that would otherwise be cancelled by snow storms. Although initially I was quite skeptical about discernment over the telephone, I can speak to the experience of Spirit working over the phone.

Neither phone nor video-call have quite the same presence as being in the same room, but they are better than no connection. And they seem better alternatives for an individual than joining a local non-Quaker church, not having any spiritual community, or leaving one's job and moving. I'm convinced these can be effective tools to compensate against physical distance, for spiritual nurturing and community when physical meetings can only happen at most once or twice a year.

Possibilities for non-physical community could include weekly worship; discussion and/or "second hour" learning program, clearness committees, or spiritual nurture programs such as Friendly 8s.

I wonder about how this might strengthen the Meeting involved- be it a worship group, Half-Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker body. Might we look to the existing model of worship groups, which exist within a Monthly Meeting? Could there be ongoing relationship between this non-physical community and another Meeting, in partnership and members of one another? I am imagining a quality speakerphone in the centre of a Meeting-room, conference-called into some number of peoples' homes. The non-physical Meeting, spread over a wide area, might provide some welcome additional diversity, and in turn benefit from the diversity of the physically-centered Meeting. If the non-physical Meeting needed administrative support for the requirements of holding membership, this might best be accomplished by a Meeting that already has clearness committees, established membership rolls, and the ability to respond to request for traveling letters.

As with membership clearness committees, the joined Meeting as a whole might be able to better support Friends seeking clearness for Marriage (with a merged on-site care committee component) or other forms of support.

As a support structure for isolated Friends where there is no current Meeting or worship group, I feel fairly clear about the appropriateness of this idea.

I feel there needs to be additional clarity over seeking membership of a remote Friends group when there exists a local Meeting as well. However, if this model for some Friends means the difference between having a faith community of peers, and not having any faith community, I believe the stronger option is to have a faith community, and as such it is worth the experiment to try.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Finding a Place

I have read and re-read the wonderful Friends Journal article by Emma Churchman, Quakers Are Way Cooler Than You Think. She names various dimensions of disconnect that Young Friends (teenage through 30s) feel toward Quaker institutions.  She counsels:

"Be willing to transform. The structure of monthly and yearly meetings doesn’t work for a lot of younger Friends. Many young adult Friends identify with a yearly meeting rather than a monthly meeting. Other YAFs identify themselves as Quaker without membership in a monthly or yearly meeting at all. These young people are unable to commit to a monthly meeting primarily because they move so frequently, or because they attend school far away from the meeting in which they grew up. They struggle with membership in a religious society that requires them to remain in one place. Often, they also are unable to fulfill the financial requirements of membership.
Are you willing to help this age group consider what membership could look like outside of the typical structure of monthly or yearly meetings? What could it look like for them to retain their membership in Friends General Conference, say, or Friends United Meeting instead of a specific monthly meeting? What if we revitalized a national Young Adult Friends Meeting that housed membership for young adults in transition between the meetings they grew up in and their next home meetings? What are we willing to do, as a religious society or at least as a specific branch of Quakerism, to embrace these young people in new ways?"
This hits home in a number of ways for me. Canadian Quakers are in the middle of a discussion on exactly this sort of question, flowing from a proposal from Canadian Young Friends Yearly Meeting, to allow membership in Yearly Meeting, Half-Yearly Meeting, or other groups.

My intellect, heart, and spirit have been pulled in all sorts of directions.

I honour the voices of young people who are very clear about how the established membership processes are incompatible with their lives, and also are Quaker in the depth of their being. And the Quaker structures which might help- such as clearness committees to assist with the big life decisions and upheavals - may be inaccessible.

I am clear in my mind that God does not care one whit about membership structures and administravia- as things themselves- aside from how they shape our lives to be more faithful and loving.

And lastly in my experience I have found that it is exceedingly difficult for a virtual group, meeting in person once or twice a year, to act like a Monthly Meeting between these gatherings- to do the discernment necessary to support decisions, to provide proper accountability between Friends, to nurture the vitality of Spirit that makes the difference between an ongoing spiritual path and a wonderful intention that falls by the wayside, causing spiritual damage rather than growth.

Some of my story: I formally applied for membership less than a year before moving out-of-state (Ithaca, NY to Boston, then to Kitchener, Ontario) and I then felt very clear that I wasn't a member of any of the meetings I was sojourning in. I knew I was in Boston for a short time; I didn't feel "right" in any of the many meeting options; partly because they weren't Ithaca's Meeting. I felt in transition- even after settling in Kitchener with the expectation of living here for the long term. And neither was I a fully participating member of where I held my membership: visiting Ithaca a few times a year, emailing with Friends when inspiration struck, receiving the wonderful hand-written notes on the monthly newsletters... I missed Ithaca Meeting more than I could say, but it wasn't really my home any more.

I also had a strong connection with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Sitting on the "front porch" of our email list, which has the most Quakerly vibe of any email list I can imagine. Meeting twice a year, in February for a mid-winter gathering, and at FGC Gathering each summer, which brought out immense Spiritual interconnectedness during the week or weekend we were together. These wonderful souls helped keep me Quaker when I otherwise felt spiritually dead, showed me what the Blessed Community looks and feels like, and otherwise acted as superb role-models and elders (of all ages). I've watched discernment at work over the years, as our Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business considered how to live up to God's charge for us. I've watched how we fail, and sometimes fail gracefully (what one dear friend calls "a ministry of public imperfection"). I've felt wonderfully well-used, serving on committees that met during gatherings. And I've once or twice I've requested short-term clearness committees for helping my discernment.

I imagine many readers know exactly where I'm coming from- those with strong connection to Yearly Meeting, or their regional Meeting. If you have this connection, and don't have a strong connection to a Monthly Meeting, this can feel like the only game in town. Made all the sweeter for its brevity and intensity.

I've also served on a number of FLGBTQC committees that felt a call to do work between gatherings. The ones that felt successful required firm clerking, phone conference-calls, intentionally avoiding discernment over email, and making the necessary time in my schedule to actually do the work, rather than how it naturally (magically?) "falls together" at gatherings. ...And the unsuccessful committees expected magic to happen between gatherings, without enough hard work: we were unable to talk on the phone, lacked strong cohesion or purpose, or we over-committed what individuals could each accomplish by ourselves. To me, this felt like a huge disappointment- letting down a leading, letting down each other, letting down God. And anticipating the next gathering would lead me to some bit of anxiety- what was I going to say yes to, what should I say no to? How in the world can one be faithful under these conditions? 

And then... I gradually became closer to Kitchener Meeting. Five years ago I became involved with the Quaker Quest outreach project. Among other things, I became open to the possibility I might have a leading toward ministry. I really needed a clearness committee, and to be held to accountability, and a plan for living more solidly in the Spirit rather than the rather wide pendulum-swings between utter spiritual disconnect on the one hand, and deep, deep community while at FGC or FLGBTQC gatherings on the other.

Two years ago, I gave an after-Meeting presentation to Kitchener Meeting on my spiritual journey. I spoke about how important Ithaca Meeting had been for my spiritual development. A week afterward, I spoke in worship at FLGBTQC midwinter gathering.  On Fox's statement that there are a great people to be gathered, I said was certain that he hadn't meant "a great people to be gathered once or twice a year." Even as I was speaking to a room full of widely-flung cherished Friends whom I seldom saw more frequently than twice a year; some who felt complete disconnect with any local Meeting.  I spoke of the importance of the local Meeting on one's spiritual condition, and that we were to make our Meetings into the homes for our spiritual selves. Even (and especially) if it took a lot of work.

At that moment, I knew I was going to apply to transfer membership to Kitchener, despite the questions I still had about the Meeting and my fit in it.

Now, in 2013, I have what feels like an incredible luxury- a local community who is helping me grow in Spirit, helping hold me accountable, and providing a counter-balance against the various pressures of life which threaten spiritual burnout (including the risk of saying "yes" to too many wonderful Quaker service opportunities).

I have had the luxury of learning Quaker process and history from an inter-generational community that includes people who have been Quaker for twice as long as I've been alive. This has been grounding for me, and I believe practicing my Quaker faith in an inter-generational community is an important part of learning about our faith. I have particularly been blessed by discovering Quakers in Ithaca- who embraced me and then my same-sex partner when we got together. I know many young Friends have had the opposite experience, being ignored or discounted concerning parts of their life that are not open to debate (such as gender pronouns).

I have, at times past, felt very clear that "my Quaker community" isn't a Monthly Meeting. And having that spread-out community has often been a great support to me, except when it felt too sketchy, too optional. Or on the other hand: when I have said yes to supporting somebody else between gatherings, and the structure (email/chat, lacking cohesion, not doing the work) meant we let them down.

I have, at times, felt like the concept of membership is proforma. And other times I've felt that membership is a recognition of a relationship that was already present, something beshert, a pairing made by God.

So I'm left with the question: despite distance, upheavals and pace of life, how can we make and keep the strong connections which are necessary to being members one of another? What are we willing to do as a religious society?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How I became a Quaker- part 1

My Quaker story begins a few years before I was born....
My mother fell in with Quakers in New York City, during the 60s protests against the Vietnam War. I was born in the mid 70s. I grew up in a completely secular household, but both of my parents had what I would now call a secular Quaker style of parenting my brothers and me. They gave us moral guidelines and lots of leeway to think for ourselves.
I remember when I was small, asking about heaven. They explained how it was an important idea to many people, but they didn't believe in it. And maybe it's up to us to create heaven while we were living on earth.
They taught us about ecology and the web of life, treating everybody with equal respect, and the importance of personal integrity.
Through high-school I called myself agnostic, because I felt I had no evidence for or against the Divine, though I switched from atheist to believer a few times as well. But when I went away to school, my mother said, "Ithaca has a Quaker Meeting. You might try going to it some time." Being 18, I basically replied, "Sure mom, whatever." But some months later, I did some library research and found that I was open to the idea of Quaker Meeting, even if religion still made me quite suspicious.
It was nearly a year before I made my way "so early" on a Sunday morning for 10:30 worship on the edge of campus. I found the building, found the room, and nearly immediately felt like I was rejoining a group I already somehow knew.
I remember how difficult it was to quiet my thoughts for an entire hour; I was sure I was doing it wrong.
I remember hearing messages that made me think; and messages that bugged me; and gradually learning how to listen to the Spirit under the words.
I remember how friendly and accepting so many people were. At that time, I was making an effort to "come out of the closet"— and it was remarkably healing to be part of a non-student group that accepted me just as I was; even people my parents’ and grandparents' ages.
I remember how much going to meeting "Just Fit"—and how clear it was to me this had been a missing piece in my life. I gradually became more aware of the still, small Voice that was speaking—to me—and my rationalist agnosticism eventually melted away in the presence of that Voice.
I remember how impressed I was at the audacity of the idea behind Business Meeting—community discernment of God's instructions for us today, not 2,000 years ago— and how this has been practiced for over 300 years! And also sometimes how frustrating it was in practice, even after I started decoding the acronyms. I fell in love with Quaker process, within a few years, after I had experienced a number of Covered meetings— covered by Spirit's loving embrace.
So as a student, I kept going as often as I could, even though 10:30 was still quite early in the morning. 
How could I not?
I am curious about other peoples' faith journeys. How did you get where you are today? We don't tend to talk about these things in public much, do we? Let me know if you've written up something like this. I hope to write a few "chapters" - perhaps 3 or 4 to bring me up to today.
This is a re-post with minor changes from my guest post at FGCquaker.org. It's licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License, which means you can repost it with attribution for non-commercial use. But I'd appreciate knowing if you do!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A walking meditation

I took a long walk this afternoon, enjoying some time with Rover exploring a new-to-us neighbourhood. It was good for an extended period of walking meditation, being super-attentive to myself; listening to the deeper part of me that often knows more than I realize.

I was feeling... burdened, but I didn't know from what, at first. It gradually clarified to anxiety over whether I was "Doing It Right" - feeling like I could be doing so much more, living better, making a bigger difference in the world.  (So, um, perhaps the most common angst known to humankind.)

I went deeper- walking and questioning, and asking Spirit for hints, since this was feeling pretty much like Meeting for Worship. I found I was resisting some directions, and eventually brought my attention back around to those troubling places, as Quakers have instructed all the way back to George Fox's time.

Some of the tough parts: Yes, I could do a better job with particular challenges, and I will work on those. Yes, the world is indeed in a fine mess, and there might be things I could be doing in the world to help.

But- it eventually felt fairly clear that this prompting was not a direct instruction for something I should be doing or not doing. Nor was it a "wait; go further into stillness before you can figure it out." Nor was it a "chill out, you get anxious over everything." (well, there was some of that, but that wasn't the brunt of the message).

Ultimately: "don't do more. Do less. Better."

And I feel that's the root of it, because articulating that took off a bit of the burden. And it's good sensible advice. Even if it's difficult advice.

Friday, September 28, 2012

After the Dazzle of Day

After the dazzle of day is gone,
Only the dark dark night shows
        to my eyes the stars;
After the clangor of organ majestic,
        or chorus, or perfect band,
Silent, athwart my soul, moves the
        symphony true.
                  – Walt Whitman (1888)

I was going to name my blog after Dazzle of Day, the wonderful Quaker science-fiction novel by Molly Gloss, but I didn't want to confuse anyone who might think this blog were by her.

So I went back to sources- hers for the inspiration for the novel's title, and mine for a leading light and major personal inspiration over the years.

I also figured that nobody would confuse me for him, despite the oh-so-many similarities... (hm: male. Sometimes bearded. Have family on Long Island. Admirer of male form; and incurable romantic. But I will stop there, since I'm not much of a poet.) 

"Athwart" is such a wonderful 19th-century nautical word, isn't it? I picture masts laying across boats.

Or for a modern flavour, perhaps cats athwart keyboards?