Monday, April 4, 2016

A Thought on “Unlock Justice:” the 2016 FCNL Lobby Weekend Event

ESR student Karen A. Bradley shares her thoughts after attending Friends Committee on Legislation's Spring Lobby Weekend: 



Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to attend the “Unlock Justice” Lobby Weekend sponsored by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington DC. As a nontraditional student, I was--let's just say--“a tad” bit older than most of the participants, about 400 Quaker and Quaker-inspired high school and college students. The purpose of the event was to train and excite young activists in lobbying as an advocacy practice.  Participants spent three days learning about the issue and one day actually lobbying their state senators and representatives on Capital Hill. It was a high energy event to say the least.  These young adults were amped up on their political and religious passions.  Even the moments of Quaker silence shimmered in palpable effervescence. 

Sentencing reform was the substantive focus of the lobby weekend. In particular, mandatory sentencing, especially for small drug crimes, that has filled our prison systems with essentially non-violent, minimal crime offenders who end up with very long maximum sentences. There is also evidence that this affects poor and minority communities disproportionately. Much needs to be done to reform these laws.  That is why FCNL chose this issue for the lobby weekend.  It is an essential step in having a more fair and just approach to imprisonment in America.

I care very much about this issue. As I looked over the 400 students packed into the hotel conference room, I also thought about my own nephew, Joshua, who sits in a prison in Oklahoma. It isn't one of those extreme examples we heard about at the conference.  He is an ordinary rural kid in his early 30s who was arrested for selling “meth.”  It sounds bad and dangerous but he is not that formidable.  Josh grew up in a low income home and community.  He has a dad who died of an overdose. He has multiple learning disabilities including ADHD.  They tried Ritalin at the time but eventually, because Josh didn't have access to health care, he didn't have any access to treatment.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade and began self medicating with speed (oddly kids with hyperactivity actually feel more calm when they take speed.)  Because he didn't complete school, he struggled to find jobs.  He moved through a variety of them, all minimum wage. For the most part, he attempted to do well in them. Even when he did do well, the pay was hardly enough to live on.  His growing involvement with drugs grew out of the lack of economic opportunities, the on-going issues with learning disabilities, a narrative on rural masculinity, and a whole host of other things.  There were times he had more opportunities then others. He has a loving, supportive family.  Even so, Josh never really pulled his life together; his drug use grew worse.  His crime, the “selling” of meth, was simply him passing on enough to a few friends in order to pay for his own habits.  So now he is in prison for three years and he has several substantial fines he must pay when he gets out.

It is hard to imagine how this scenario is going to yield anything other than more failure in his life.  What “lesson” will he learn in prison that will make his life better when he gets out? He has a drug addiction, learning disabilities, and a learned way of life that centers on tough masculinity.  He needs adequate health care.  He needs education. He needs a minimum wage that he can live on.  He needs job opportunities that are meaningful.  He needs an alternative way of thinking about the world that gives him hope.

Joshua is only slightly older than the young Quaker lobbyists who marched into senator and representative offices on Capital Hill to speak their minds.  Their life paths are very different.  There isn't anything the young Quakers can do to directly to undo the unevenness between their more blessed lives and the lives of poor rural white kids in Oklahoma. But that those students take the time to invest their blessings in ways to intervene in the system and to demand attention to the cause of peace and justice is truly a beautiful thing. It inspires me to work harder and it gives me hope. 

The tag line for the whole weekend was “Tell congress why you want to “unlock justice.”--the source of many videos that were posted on social media.  Here is my response.  Why do I want to “unlock justice?”  Because I believe that prison sentences are no substitute for adequate education, affordable health care, and a functioning economy.  

Quaker young adults, you rock!

See for yourselves: photos up on Facebook





Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Inner Darkness, Winter Gardens

ESR student Susan Flynn delivered the following message during ESR Worship on February 2, 2016:

We are at the close of the first month of the year, a time where people make resolutions to live their life better, access meaning quicker, clear away what is unneeded or not working.  We are just beginning February.  Even though it is the shortest month, for most people I know, they can’t wait for it to be over.  The hanging-on-of-winter and the pull of spring end up leaving many of us craving sunlight, with the impatience of cabin fever.  I have discovered I love ESR for the same reasons I love winter.  Winter is a chance to bundle up, go inside, read a good book, reflect, and act like a cat by finding the most comfortable place to fall asleep.  Enjoy the contrasts, hot chocolate after being out in the cold, candlelight in the evening.


 Today I want to not talk about inner light but our inner darkness.  I grow weary of the association of light being good, and the dark being bad and scary.  We need the dark as much as we need the light; they are contrasting but not opposites.  The Ying Yang symbol attempts to demonstrate that both light and dark are a part of each other, connected by the same underlying essence.  This writing explores how I have been distracted by the light and given gifts through darkness. 
When we have too much light it can affect our bodies and brains, too much sun, can lead to health issues.  We can be kept from sleep at night from the blue light emanating from our electronics.  As human beings we are designed to stop and replenish - darkness is necessary for this to happen.  At night, our brains remove what is unneeded information, consolidating useful material while our body’s systems re-calibrate on every level, regulating growth and hunger hormones for optimal functioning during the day.  The moonflower and certain water lilies only bloom at night.  Butterflies, the symbol of transformation, would never open their magnificent wings without their time in dark seclusion as caterpillars.     
Sometimes the bring light of spring and summer can be stressful for me because my expectations for the day sky-rocket.  And I often find myself disappointed when I cannot accomplish an uncanny amount of work, activities, and play before sundown.  With winter, well maybe not this one, but winters in the past, a layer of snow can make it hard to go out, lowering my expectations to reasonable.  Nature turns the lights down low and we are invited to go within, and experience what awaits our engagement.  Or we can choose not to and tap our feet impatiently awaiting the spring.  The sunny months are always entertaining, fun and stimulating; but I have learned the most from exploring the dark.  
Before I decided to go to seminary I experienced a bit of a dark night of the soul.  Two years before I went, I was getting swallowed in debt, trying to sell a house that I had once cherished as a place I called home.  I spent a lot of time in nature and in the company of my cats as I reflected on the end of a relationship that lasted over a decade.  I didn’t want to be with people, so when I wasn’t at my job I would have my meals with the birds outside and spent time praying inside with my cats at night.  At that time I learned about the many levels of loneliness.  And that is when I really started to talk with God.  I prayed nightly asking for direction, answers, and help by candle light.  God, nature and animals were my most cherished company during that time.  They journeyed with me into the abyss, and there I had encounters with fear, doubt and self -worth.  I was disoriented for a while, groping around in the dark, but as I became accustomed to connecting with my shadows, remembering who I was and what was important, it became powerful place to be, working with the force of life.  When Luke Skywalker trained with Yoda in the swamp, he was blind-folded - unaided by visual sight to see what was in the light.  He began to hear and see from another place.  A place within, that was honest, deep and holy.  One that was free from illusion and distraction.  As I wrestled with loneliness I began to learn how lovely it was to be alone and that it was not only the end of certain things in my life, but also the beginning.
          Ministry has always been something that whispered to me, and nipped at my heels in my life’s most present moments.  At that time, I loved my job as an Employment Specialist; it affirmed my love of people, but over the course of 12 years I discovered I wanted to work with people in a more spiritual way.  As I was clearing out the weeds in my life, I began to water the thought of going to Seminary.  Knowing internally that the place that held the most value and meaning for me was with the church, people and nature. 
I changed realtors, emptied the house and sold most of what I owned.  The house sold on May first in Massachusetts and I was working at a job in New Hampshire on the 21st, and by fall I was traveling to many seminaries in my old Honda Lucy, in search of a good place to study.
          Although I had some of my most theologically provocative conversations at [another] school in Chicago, I did not fall in love.  In the end, Earlham School of Religion stole my heart.  I wanted to study with people of other faith traditions; the beauty of Richmond’s farmland and sky called out easily winning over the city living the other schools offered.  But most of all ESR had an essence that the other places could not touch; sure the other places were impressive, shiny, engraved scripture in the floor, ornate chapels, and had extensive community programs, but something was missing.  I knew when I visited ESR, this was a place I would be able to go as deep as I wanted to into the questions I would have.  And as most of you know who have ever been in class with me, I have a lot of questions!  I could not identify all the reasons ESR held my attention, the essence was a bit mysterious, but I had enough to go on, I was going to move for the fourth time: destination Richmond, Indiana.
          I have lived in both Massachusetts and South Carolina and although I have roots in both places, I find I always go through culture shock when I go from one to the other.   And even though I knew ESR, nestled in the Midwest was exactly the place I was supposed to be, when I got here I experienced another wilderness desert moment.  Where was everyone?


          I did not quite get the Quaker culture when I first arrived, the quiet, stillness and lack of bright colors was a bit different.  When I would enter Barclay I felt like I was in an old western ghost town.  I would burst in, with my rambling gregarious greetings, dressed in various colors that did not necessarily go with Quaker grey.  Pushing open the Barclay saloon doors, this displaced cowgirl would instantly disturb the productive solace-filled space.  The first couple times I came, I would question myself wondering, "Wait.  Where am I?  Should I be speaking in a whisper? Am I in the library?"  The people of Barclay got used to my energy.  Matt would know it would be just minutes before I dropped in asking if I could test the Keurig machine. He would laugh when I would reason I was making sure it was running properly for the prospective students.  Miriam, always gracious, instead of hiding the candy bowl would busily refill it, knowing my not-so-covert ninja agenda was always on a mission for a piece of chocolate.  And Jay upon hearing my exuberance would always subtly close his door in order to get his work done without the distraction of an over-excited cowgirl.
          As an enthusiastic U.U. it took me a little while at ESR to get acclimated, at first I was very aware of what I was missing, color, buddies, things to do, and extroverted people.  We were surrounded by farms growing all sorts of things, why did it feel like a desert to me?  Was the grass greener at another seminary?  Had I made a mistake?  As I went to classes and waiting worship and got into the flow of ESR, I began to realize, that the mysterious essence I couldn’t name originally was actually transformational, and that spirit I felt in the air was descending upon me.  The desert I saw was an illusion, because I was searching for something that would never be found where I was looking.
          The quiet, the spirit, and this place asked me, invited me, to go within.  This lifted the veil helping me realize, as I first suspected, that it wasn’t in the shiny, or carved floors, it was not who I had been in my last job.  It was so quiet, all the voices of the world hushed, and I came to understand, we were not without, we were actually deeply and perhaps more available for the holy listening, of spirit in this place.  I was on sacred land, that was lush and nutrient enough to grow whatever I needed while I was here. 
The green grass began to sprout around my spot in the Richmond desert; I saw community and loving called it as I saw it, pockets of community.  There were all these great, hole-in-the-wall places to eat, Roscoe’s - a coffee shop where I could study, caffeinate and move the furniture - nature trails all over the place, and high -aliber lectures and shows in town.  My extroverted side is satiated knowing of all the things to do, but the gold I was originally mining for was for my introverted side, the apophatic nourishment.  Upon first arriving here, I was used to so much external stimulus and touchstones, it was disorienting for me at first not seeing them were I was accustomed.  And although I am a kataphatic person, I was drawn here because of the space made for the introvert, appreciation for processing and contemplation.  Knowing this environment would allow for spirit to arise and be heard where she would in my life.  That chance to honor the dark, turn off all the lights, the doing, the entertainment, and let the head sink into the heart and explore what is most vulnerable, honest and true.  Love, integrity, being connected, witnessing and listening are among these gifts. 
I have been doing a lot of reflecting since I got here.  The natural environment of quiet, and simplicity, has helped me shed the layers and pieces that were not helpful in my theology and personal philosophy.  For me the gift of transformation has been in learning to trust the process of breaking apart - it’s terrifying for sure but I understand what is happening now.  Perhaps the same feeling the Incredible Hulk might have experienced the first time his skin turned green and he doubled in size.  Seminary in my opinion, if done right is transformational on every level, destruction, mayhem, construction, peace, pain, and deeper sense of purpose, power and place.
          In my life before Seminary, I was trying to get my ducks in a row, race with the rats, and work toward the good life, and as my life unfolded as many people's do, my ducks scattered.  Who decided on ducks anyhow? If I am administered a new set of ducks, if I can’t send them back, I think I would rather have them dance or drum and invite some non-ducks to the party.
Now down to an apartment's worth of stuff, I have found again I no longer need all that I have.  I have also been cleaning out my internal spiritual house, finding the possessions worth the most don’t take up space to store, but are a treasure to have.  Refocusing from consuming to connecting with people, the love of learning and discussing something important, practicing reiki, letter writing, and not having a T.V., is such a joy.  Knee deep in compost, preparing this winter garden, focusing in on the question Wayne Muller asks us, how then shall we live?  A large part of this garden is reserved specifically for mystery, the spirit to plant what is inspired at any given point.  I acknowledge that I have only two of the many hands that will be tending to this enchanted place.  The winter, the absence of light, is just as good growing conditions as the spring and summer.  What does your inner darkness, this garden of winter have to reveal to you?     





Friday, November 6, 2015

Hicks and Gurney Fight it Out at Silver Bay

Students in Steve Angell's "Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity" class this fall were asked to imagine a scenario in which Joseph John Gurney and Elias Hicks met up in a present-day context with which the students are familiar. Below is one of the resulting essays, from MDiv student John Edminster:



In the fantasy-narrative here unfolding, Elias Hicks (1748-1830) was brought back to be keynote speaker at New York Yearly Meeting’s 2016 Summer Sessions. While the Sessions Committee was arranging this, the Worship-at-Sessions Subcommittee decided to call up Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) to lead evening Bible Study during the week. Some expressed concern that Friend Elias and Friend Joseph John[1] might not get along well, but the sense among the planners was, “we’re not a creedal religion, no one’s salvation depends on doctrinal correctness, and there’s that of God in every person, so there’s no good reason for them not to get along.” And that was that. At week’s end the Epistle Committee reported that Friends found their visits “stimulating.” But only those who attended knew how very stimulating they were.

Poor Joseph John: he’d no sooner gotten his name-tag on the Inn Porch than Friends started mobbing him about the FUM employment policy, LGBTQ concerns, and the environment. Eventually Ruth, a sensitive old-timer, took him off for a quiet cup of tea and brought him up to date on the issues that exercise Friends nowadays. Joseph John seemed dismayed that Biblical teachings weren’t among them. Ruth explained that though the yearly meeting has an advice[2] about Scripture-reading, Friends here pretty much let other Friends make what they like of Scripture – if it’s read at all. Some do; many don’t.




“But it’s ever been the belief of the Society of Friends,” cried Joseph John, “that the Holy Scriptures were written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, we might have life through His name!”[3] He caught his breath and went on: “And secondly, the accordance of the truths revealed in Scriptures, with what we know in ourselves, and observe in the world around us, and more especially the adaptation of the gospel of Christ to the condition of fallen man, supplies us with a further conclusive proof, that the Creator and moral Governor of the universe is the Author of the Bible.[4] God speaks to us through the Bible, Friend! Can’t we hear Him pleading with us? ‘Return ye now, every one from his evil way – for as I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked!’"[5]

“But just how is humanity ‘fallen,’ Joseph John? And will you be telling the Friends in your Bible-study classes that there’s a ‘hell’ or a ‘damnation’ that they’re in danger of? That’s going to be a hard sell here. They don’t think of themselves as wicked. Best-selling author Phil Gulley has argued –“ But here Ruth broke off, for Joseph John had buried his head in his hands and begun weeping.
Over dinner she persuaded Joseph John not to risk losing his Bible-study audience by insisting on the literal scientific and historical truth of the Bible. “Stick with the moral teachings of Jesus,” she advised. “If you want to assert that people are in bondage to ‘sin’ and you can’t use a less charged word like ‘brokenness’  or ‘proneness to error,’ OK, Joseph John, take your chances, but stay away from mentioning the ‘devil.’ It’ll just blow people’s circuits.”

“Circuits?” Joseph John asked, wide-eyed.

Linda, meeting Elias’s train up in Ticonderoga, greeted him with the happy news that the Hicksite separation of 1827-28 was now largely forgotten, New York Yearly Meeting’s Hicksites and Orthodox having reunited in 1955. “Anyway, we’re mostly Hicksites here now.”



Elias smiled wanly in an attempt to be friendly, his smiling muscles weak from disuse and his alertness to the temptation of pride triggered by the mention of “Hicksites.” We’ll just see what they mean by that word, he thought. He didn’t have to wait long. His keynote speech, delivered shortly after dinner to a packed auditorium, was entitled “The Requisites to the Being and Well-Being of a Christian.” The first principal requisite, he began, was “a real belief in God and Christ as one undivided essence – known and believed in, inwardly and spiritually.” The second was “a complete, passive obedience and submission to the divine will and power – inwardly and spiritually manifested – which when known, brings to the Christian state through a crucifixion of the old man with all his ungodly deeds. And thirdly, in order for the preservation and well-being of a Christian, it is necessary that they often meet and assemble together for the promotion of love and good works.”[6] The audience, stunned by the unexpected Christian language and particularly by the call for “the crucifixion of the old man,” sat in breathless silence.

“But thanks be to God,” Elias concluded at length, “who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law to all those that believe and are witnesses of his spiritual appearance in their hearts to take away sin and finish transgression and fulfill all righteousness in those who willingly deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him in the way of regeneration. Even so, let it be, saith my spirit, with the spirits of the faithful. Amen forever.”[7]

“Are there questions, comments, or ministry rising?” the Clerk asked.

A hand shot up in the back. “Yes – the Friend in the black suit.”

“Friend Elias,” began Joseph John, “I heard thee say that the Messiah was ‘a true and real man, possessed of the same nature of our first parent, Adam, [who] by his faithfulness to divine requisition and the leadings of Holy Spirit… overcame the wicked one… setting an example to all his followers and assuring them… that… they might come to… be strengthened through divine aid to rise superior to all temptations and the possibility of falling. For to effect this by his example, his precepts, doctrines, and commands was the great and glorious end of his coming.’[8] Was that the only end of His coming, Elias, to be an example and teach doctrines? And was that ‘same nature of Adam’ His only nature? For Paul plainly taught ‘that Jesus Christ… subsisted in the nature and condition of God, [and] so humbled himself, as to take upon him the nature and condition of a servant and a man.’[9] And ‘those who look upon Jesus of Nazareth as a mere man, almost necessarily deny the doctrine of his propitiatory death and sacrifice on the cross.’[10] But that sacrifice, Friends! That sacrifice served a vast purpose, ‘nothing less than the redemption of the world – the deliverance of mankind from the bondage of sin and Satan, and from the bitter pains of eternal death, and his final translation to the kingdom of everlasting rest and glory!’[11] But ‘under the imagination that we have the whole Christ, as a thing or substance, in ourselves, [as Elias and his followers claim,] we first disregard, and then deny, the divine, incarnate Saviour, of whom the Scriptures testify.’”[12]

At this the whole auditorium burst into disorder, with some Friends waving their hands to be recognized, others holding their arms aloft to signal for silence, and others standing and speaking without waiting for the Clerk’s recognition. But Joseph John had not yet relinquished the microphone. He went on, shouting over the din: “I know that some of you ‘secretly entertain the good old faith of the Christian Quaker; truly believing in Jesus of Nazareth, as… the Saviour of the world. Do not such individuals dangerously compromise their principles, so long as they continue in church-fellowship with ministers and others… who are publicly known… to repudiate these essential doctrines of the christian religion? In the tenderness of christian affection, I submit this weighty consideration to the verdict of their consciences! “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” – ‘[13]

Thus began the week. Gurney won some sympathizers over the course of his Bible-study sessions, but no defectors from the reunited yearly meeting; experience, it seemed, had proven separation too costly. Hicks, without intending it, persuaded many self-styled Hicksites to stop using the term to refer to themselves. Most Friends left Summer Sessions unsure just what the differences were between the two old men in plain dress – “I don’t get it,” said Ruth. “They’re both Christians.”

Linda quipped, “Remember the theme of last year’s summer sessions, ‘320 years – one faith?’[14] I’ll bet they think twice before using that slogan again.”


John Edminster is a first-year MDiv student at ESR. He moved to Richmond along with his wife Elizabeth (also an ESR student) from New York City, where he is a member of Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting (New York Yearly Meeting).











[1] "Gurney was born at Earlham Hall near Norwich (now part of the University of East Anglia), the tenth child of John Gurney (1749–1809), who was a banker (Gurney's Bank) and a Friend himself. He was always called Joseph John." Emphasis added. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_John_Gurney [accessed 10/11/2015].
[2] NYYM’s second advice reads: “Friends are advised to read frequently the Scriptures and such other books as will inspire and instruct, and to encourage the practice by their families and others.” Faith and Practice (1998 ed.), http://www.nyym.org/?q=F-P_Advices [accessed 10/18/2015].
[3] The section of the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith entitled “The Holy Scriptures,” which has a Gurneyite heritage, begins: “It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written so that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.’ (John 20:31)." http://www.quakerinfo.com/rdf.shtml [Accessed 10/9/2015].
[4] Gurney, Hints on the Portable Evidence of Christianity, New Edition (Philadelphia: Henry Longstreth, 1856), p. vi.
[5] Ezek. 18: 23, 31, 33:11; cf. Jer. 18:11, 35:15 (KJV).
[6] Quoted from Paul Buckley, ed., The Journal of Elias Hicks (San Francisco: Inner Light Books, 2009), p. 349.
[7] Ibid., p. 223.
[8] Ibid., p. 292.
[9] Gurney, Biblical notes and dissertations, intended to confirm and illustrate the doctrine of the Deity of Christ, 2nd ed. (London: L. Rivington, 1833), p. 95, emphasis added. The reference is to Philippians 2:5-11.
[10] Gurney, A Letter to the Followers of Elias Hicks, in the City of Baltimore and Its Vicinity (Baltimore: Wood & Crane, 1840), p. 4. https://archive.org/details/alettertofollow00gurngoog [Accessed 10/18/2015].
[11] Ibid., p. 9.
[12] Ibid., p. 17. Emphases in the original.
[13] Ibid., p. 5, inconsistent capitalization of the word “Christian” as in the original; exclamation point added. The scriptural quotation is from 2 Corinthians 6:17 (KJV).
[14] NYYM Minute 2014-11-27, http://www.nyym.org/?q=Minutes-2014FallSessions [accessed 10/18/2015]. See the author’s "'320 Years, One Faith': What does faith ask of me now?" article in Spark, May 2015.  http://www.nyym.org/?q=Spark- May2015-Edminster [accessed 10/18/2015]. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Review of "Early Quakers And Their Theological Thought, 1647-1723"

2015 ESR graduate John Connell reviews the recent release, Early Quakers And Their Theological Thought, 1647-1723, co-edited by ESR's Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion. 




The introduction of this volume, penned by editors Pink Dandelion and Stephen W. Angell, wastes no time in reminding readers why this is an important work: “Early Quakerism has always excited scholars.”[1] Indeed it has, and for good reason. Despite their fractured state, all groups of modern Quakers still look back to the early Friends to ground themselves in their own interpretation of Quakerism. In fact, early Friends have often been re-interpreted in different ways by subsequent generations in order to re-assure those later generations in their particular contemporary formulation of Quaker faith and practice. Thus, studies of early Friends are always sure to both inform and challenge modern Quakers as to their own interpretations and incarnations of the Society.
Early Quakers and Their Theological Thought, 1647-1723, is sure to inform and challenge both liberal and evangelical Friends alike to examine their current incarnations and perhaps thoughtfully consider the relationship they bear to the founding generation of this movement. There is much to recommend about this volume. The chapters are relatively short (under 20 pages), and yet jam-packed with details about each individual, and most importantly, copious snippets of their own words. There is no denying that the scholars involved are representative of the finest that Quaker Studies has to offer. The bibliography alone is worth having for its collected wealth of primary and secondary sources.
The challenge of any such project is to allow the subject of each profile to speak their own message clearly, without being obscured by the interpretive voice of the authors. With few exceptions, this book succeeds in meeting this challenge. Because the book is a collection of profiles, written by different authors—each uniquely selected as a qualified authority on their subject—this review will move through the book chapter by chapter.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Jesus, John and Daniel Striped Tiger

The following is the text of a message delivered during worship by ESR student Travis Etling on September 22, 2015. 

(Daniel and Travis)

Part I.
Description of Cornville
I want to start this morning with a story.  And before I tell the story, I want to give you the context for the story – because I was paying attention in my biblical studies classes and I know that context is everything!  I also want to minimize or at least contextualize my own questionable behavior in this story. 
     The context for this story is a sheep ranch in Cornville Arizona circa 1984; which is where I grew up - from early grade school through early high school.  Let me paint a quick picture for you.  First of all, there is no corn in Cornville.  Local legend has it that the founders of the town were named Coen.  When the clerk recorded the name of the town over the phone, she assumed the Coen’s were saying “corn” with a southern accent.  This is a highly dubious explanation I know, but that’s the story.
     Cornville is in the high desert.  There are rugged mountains, scrubby trees like mesquite and juniper.  Cornville is in the Verde Valley, which means “green valley” in Spanish so it’s not your typical desert scene – no sand dunes or saguaro cacti – its actually quite green depending on the year.  There is quite a bit of surface water.  Our property was sandwiched between an irrigation ditch along the top of the ten acre pasture and the Oak Creek river which ran along the bottom of our ranch.  The pasture was actually flood irrigated - which is why there is no more water in the Western United States.  Actually the golf courses in Nevada and Phoenix probably have more to do with that.  Anyway, you have a sense of the physical landscape – rugged but also lots of room to run and play and grow gardens and raise sheep – really very idyllic. 
The Culture of Cornville
     Now for the cultural landscape.  Cornville was tiny – there were two corner stores where you could buy milk or gasoline.  BUT, also available for purchase in Cornville, at the local survivalist store, one could buy an Uzi assault rifle.  If you chose to buy the Uzi, you could also buy a kit to convert the legal semi-automatic weapon into an illegal fully automatic weapon at the same store. 
     If you have been anywhere near the Verde Valley, you’ll know about Sedona, situated among gorgeous red, yellow and orange cliffs and mesas.  Sedona has been a center for New Age Spirituality for decades.  This Verde Valley region is somehow really representative of Arizona culture in general – a strong interest in New Age and Native American spirituality paired with a wild, frontier mentality - an interesting mix of New Age belief and 2nd amendment activism.  Cornville Arizona was truly a magical place to grow up – surreal and a little creepy perhaps, but also magical.  I’m just providing you with some cultural reference points – not that this excuses what I’m about to tell you next – but it provides some context.  Basically, in 1984, Cornville Arizona was physically and culturally still the Wild West.
4-H Family
     What we did in Cornville was 4-H.  Cornville was a 4-H kind of town and my family was a 4-H kind of family.  I can still say the 4-H pledge.  Anyway, I was very involved in 4-H, I participated in gardening and raising livestock including sheep and swine.  I also did entomology, conservation and for a very brief time, trapping.
     Trapping is as bad as it sounds, it’s truly awful.  Trapping involves setting steel leg traps for animals like raccoons, muskrats, and coyotes and then walking the trap line with a gun and shooting whatever poor animal may be stuck in the trap.  I know, it’s awful – I can’t believe my parents allowed me to do this.  But they did.  Before I go any further with this part of the story though, I need to tell you about my cat Daniel.
Daniel Striped Tiger
     Before we lived in Cornville, we lived in Tucson.  My cat Daniel was born in Tucson several years prior to the events in this story.  Daniel was the only orange striped cat born to a cat named Tabby Abby.  Tabby Abby had a litter of kittens that were all white – all except Daniel who was orange striped.  I begged my mom to let me keep the orange kitten and she finally agreed.  My favorite TV show at the time was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood - because I was in preschool.  If you know Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, you know that there is a character who is an orange cat, a puppet and his name is Daniel Striped Tiger.  Daniel Striped Tiger is one of many puppets who live in The Land of Make Believe.  Some of the other characters are King Friday, Queen Saturday, Prince Tuesday and Lady Elaine.  Daniel Striped Tiger was one of my favorite characters from Mr. Rogers, so, I named my orange cat Daniel.
Daniel was a Really Amazing Cat
     Daniel was a really cool cat – he behaved more like a dog that a cat.  He would come when you called him, he would accompany me on my various exploits and missions out in the desert – or fishing down at the creek.  Daniel survived the harsh Arizona landscape – and we went through a lot of cats – the coyotes and rattlesnakes were really hard on the cats!  I have a picture of my college graduation in State College Pennsylvania and Daniel is there in the background – so he survived to a ripe old age and lived his final years as a mostly indoor cat, in the civil and much milder landscape of Pennsylvania.
Trapping Daniel
     Anyway, long story short, I took my traps down to the Oak Creek that ran along the bottom of the pasture and set a couple of traps baited with tuna.  This was the very first time I ever trapped.  The next morning, I got up and checked my traps.  I was excited.  I had my .22 rifle.  As I approached the first trap, I could tell there was something caught and thrashing around in the underbrush.  I moved forward quickly through the brush, my heart pumping like crazy – and you can probably guess what or more precisely who was thrashing around in the trap.  Daniel. 
     Daniel was obviously in distress, his right foreleg caught in the trap and he was kind of limping around in a circle, yowling.  The rest of the memory is kind of a blur. I lay down the rifle, went to Daniel and released him from the trap.  Tears were streaming down my face.  Daniel didn’t try to bite me or scratch me while I pried open the heavy steel jaws of the trap.  He was relatively calm.  I carried Daniel as quickly as I could across the pasture and up to our house where my mom promptly drove us to the animal hospital. He had this ridiculous cast on his leg that went all the way to his shoulder – but eventually, after a few weeks, his leg healed and he was back out following me toward adventure out in the desert.
Theological Hints
     This experience gave me a lot to think about.  I never even considered whether or not to continue trapping.  I never gave it a second thought.  I gave the traps to the 4-H leader in charge of that club and I quit the club.  I was done with trapping.  Though I wouldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, my experience of Daniel’s suffering led me to have compassion for other animals.  I didn’t want anything to suffer like Daniel, so I stopped trapping. Of course, I also didn’t want to catch Daniel again either.  In my experience of Daniel’s suffering, I had a window into suffering in general.  It was an enlightenment moment, it was a salvation moment, a moment with depth, a moment touched by the mystery of God.  In my experience of Daniels suffering, I was opened to a deep experience of compassion, empathy and responsibility.  
Part II
     In A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman, Michael Birkel writes:

The issue of suffering is central to all systems of religious thought.  In Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Job stands out as an extended meditation on the meaning of suffering.  In Christianity, reflection on suffering often focuses on the meaning of the cross – the suffering of Jesus – because Christian belief holds that God through Jesus entered into human history and took on human suffering.  What is more, the suffering and death of Jesus are understood and experienced to be redemptive.
     John Woolman’s reflections on the cross are profound because they grow out of his inward experience of participating in the sufferings of Christ… Woolman felt led to enter, with the greatest respect and sympathy, into the suffering of the oppressed in order to participate in the ongoing process of redeeming the world.”[1]  

     John Woolman’s story is fascinating and inspiring to me for a variety of reasons. He was both a contemplative and an activist, both a mystic and a prophet.  He was grounded in his experience of the love and presence of God – a presence that lured him out beyond himself and his particular tradition to witness prophetically to the broader society.  I appreciate Woolman because he lived actively and authentically in the space between loving God and loving neighbor – a space which Jesus identifies as the mystery at the very heart of his teaching and tradition. 
     Woolman’s love for neighbor led him to expose himself to suffering in a variety of ways.  He traveled throughout the country in order to witness to slaveholders - to share his concern with slaveholders about the immorality of the practice.  Woolman however was not just trying to liberate slaves but also trying to liberate slaveholders.  He recognized the damage being caused not only to the slaves but also to the souls of the slaveholders.  Woolman’s religious imagination was rich – it allowed him to recognize that this category “neighbor” is broad and inclusive – that it includes both slave and slaveholder.
     Woolman understood that slave keeping “depraves the mind in like manner and with as great certainty as prevailing cold congeals water” and therefore can “shut up the mind against the gentle movings of uncreated purity.”  He seems to understand intuitively and spiritually what we know to be true today based on neuroscience:  when we practice empathy, when we open ourselves to compassion, we become better at it.[2]   Compassion is a skill.  But, we don’t just improve our behavior through the practice of this skill, we actually change the structure of our brains as we practice compassion.  The neural connections that fire when we open ourselves to empathy are reinforced and strengthened.  When we resist or shelter ourselves from the experience of suffering, compassion and empathy, we gradually lose some of our ability to be empathetic – those neural connections are physically weakened.  George Lakoff is one of the cognitive neuro-scientists who writes about this.  If you are interested, his books are very readable and non-technical.  They are fascinating. 
     While sailing to England, Woolman chose to ride in “steerage” rather than the more comfortable and expensive cabins.  Woolman wanted to experience the conditions that people suffered in steerage.  Woolman even expressed gratitude for this desire to understand suffering:
Desires were now renewed in me to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardships and difficulties of my fellow creatures and to labor in his love for the spreading of pure universal righteousness in the earth.[3]
    
Part III
     In each of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Mathew and Luke, Jesus describes the project that is at the very heart of the Christian tradition.  In Mark and Matthew, this teaching is identified as the “most important commandment.” In Luke, this teaching is described as the thing that will allow you to experience eternal life.  Here is the version from Matthew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (NRSV)

What is most striking to me about the great commandment is its tone.  Jesus’ teaching is passionate, excessive and even hyperbolic.  “All your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”  This project that involves loving God and neighbor doesn’t seem to be a peripheral concern, not something we do on the side or on the weekend but rather the central reality around which we organize our whole lives.  Surely this includes our material practices, our personal choices, how we organize our time and our political commitments?  What is most striking to me when I read this teaching is that I’m not even close to approaching the mark.
     The other thing that strikes me about this passage is just how tricky it is  – clear, maybe but also very tricky. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind? 
     In the version of the great commandment that we read in the book of Luke, the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify: who precisely is my neighbor?  Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, you remember that a man is beaten and left for dead by bandits.  The first person to come upon the victim is a priest – someone who should have been a good guy.  Yet the Priest shelters himself from the suffering Samaritan – he walks over to the other side of the road where he doesn’t have to experience the suffering, he doesn’t have to look the man in the eye, or see his blood, or hear his groaning.  The next person to come down the road is a Levite – again someone who by external standards should have been sympathetic to the man.  Yet the Levite does the same thing as the priest, he insulates himself from the suffering of the victim.  He looks the other way.  And the next person to come by is the last person we would expect to be helpful – a Samaritan, someone we would want to deport, or identify as an evildoer.  So this foreigner, this sketchy, Samaritan “comes near him; and when he sees him, he is moved with pity.”  He sees the blood, the torn skin.  He gets close enough to hear the ragged, labored breathing.  The Samaritan allows himself to be exposed to this particular suffering and is moved with empathy and compassion to take responsibility for the man in need.
*          *          *
     Many, though not all, Christians throughout history have understood that Jesus’ suffering is somehow redemptive. I also think that when suffering is experienced by people who are able to respond with empathy and responsibility, suffering can be redemptive because it allows us to participate in the ongoing redemption of the world.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow shows us that we are at one with all creation.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow mirrors for us all the suffering in the world.  I’m convinced that how precisely Jesus reconciles us with God is a profound mystery rather than a simple formula.  Christians should approach this mystery with imagination and contemplation and allow the images and to speak to our condition, to interpret us.  This isn’t a problem to solve with our rational, empirical understanding, not a puzzle for constructive theology to work out but rather a depth into which we are called to descend.
     It seems that both Jesus and John Woolman were inhabited by the Spirit of God.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be with and for those who suffer because God is with and for those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be in solidarity with those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be willing to be exposed to suffering, because we are grounded in the mystery and compassion of God.
*        *          *
     I wonder how often we organize our lives in ways that shield us from suffering because it can be uncomfortable – and this gets to the trickiness of the great commandment.  The kingdom of God involves risk.  I don’t want to make anybody feel bad about the ways that we live our lives, its natural and rational to avoid trouble and suffering.  It’s natural and rational to avoid the sketchy part of town or the individual who might take advantage of us.  Maybe though we should periodically and deliberately disrupt this habit of security in small ways in order to be exposed to opportunities to participate in the redemption of the world. 

Travis Etling is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Travis on his blog, http://bonesandlight.wordpress.com/.






[1] Michael Birkel, A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman (Richmond IN:  Friends United Press, 2003), 57-58.
[2] George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2014), Kindle location 137.
[3] John Woolman. John Woolman’s Journal, p. 172.  Quoted in Birkel in A Near Sympathy p. 65

Friday, September 25, 2015

God’s Holy Presence

ESR student Deb Geiger shared the following message during ESR worship on September 8, 2015.
          
(A picture of the group, with Deb second from the left on the bottom row)

My name is Deb Geiger, for those of you who don’t know me. I am from Michigan where I attend the First Congregational United Church of Christ in a small farming community. We have been going on mission trips to Appalachia for the last 5 years. It has been a great pleasure and we now have many friends down there with whom we enjoy connecting year after year. We believe that prayer and time spent opening up to what God has for us on this trip, as well as working on self -awareness prior to heading off, leaves us open and tender to God’s presence. Thus we spend a lot of time preparing to leave, which we believe is crucial to the success of our trips. We pray ahead of time for who will be able to join us. As the group begins to form we ask them to pray for one another and the journey itself, as well as the people we will be working with when we get to Tennessee. This includes the Morgan Scott Project through whom we work in addition to the homes and hearts we repair. Our congregation is also praying for us as we go on this journey, then they too are part of the mission trip – we remain connected through prayer. I think that one of the reasons we particularly felt covered in God’s Holy presence this trip was the addition of my Call and Discernment class praying while we were gone.

We have two preparation meetings before we leave where we begin our time of bonding, as we connect with one another and with God. We read scripture, pray and work on self awareness – in particular about being non-judgmental guests in a culture that is different from ours. (Although truthfully we find Deer Lodge, Tennessee to be very similar to the small farming community where we all live) By naming our judgments, as well as judgments we think they might possibly have of us, we own them and then work toward decreasing them so that we can do a better job of bridging any gaps between them and us. We also learn what we can about the area and poverty, which also helps decrease our judgments – knowledge is good for that. We talk about what it looks like to be a good guest and ways that we can be respectful and flexible. This helps us open our minds and our hearts to God, as well as the people we will serve and the wonderful opportunities God has in store for us. It benefits all of us because this rubs off on how we treat each other within our group. Also in the pre-meetings we focus on scripture about being hospitable to strangers and how God wants us to love neighbor as self. All these activities help us become more aware of who we are, what we are thinking and how we can be more open so that we can find God to a greater degree and love everyone equally. We also worship every night during the trip where we re-visit our day, talking about where we saw God in addition to worshiping this God we love and adore. We had another fabulous mission trip, filled beyond imagining.

I want to focus first on the words from Paul in the scripture that you just heard this morning – “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Saints refers to everyone, which refers to you too - hopefully when you hear that about yourself it makes you stretch up a bit and try to fill those shoes. Yet in this passage Paul is referring to strangers – people we don’t know. These are words that we need to live by, but it is not an easy task. Going on a mission trip is not an easy task, loving strangers is not an easy task. But we know that when we place our lives and renew our minds in God, we have more courage to step out and do those things that God is asking us to do. We Practice our faith and we grow in faith when we extend hospitality to strangers – sometimes we are on the receiving end of this and sometimes we are the givers. But in doing either, everyone reaps the benefits of a stronger faith in God as we love neighbor and stranger alike. By welcoming the stranger we make a statement that all are made in the image of God.

Repeatedly when we go to Tennessee we meet strangers: the people on whose homes we work and often new crew members and leaders, in addition to others. On our trip we extended hospitality to others and we also experienced people extending hospitality to us.

Opal was our biggest saint on this trip. We had the pleasure once again of watching someone blossom under love, respect and care. She changed from someone who distrusted us to someone who loves us and now misses us. To watch what can happen in the intensity of 5 short days is nothing short of amazing. But, our God is all about miracles.

Often we think of hospitality as someone who is good at welcoming people into their homes – I’m sure you can think of people who are good at that type of hospitality. But here our hospitality is extended in someone else’s home. The dictionary definition of hospitality is: given to generous and cordial reception of guests and welcoming spirit…offering a pleasant or sustaining environment. Sounds life giving doesn’t it? This can be challenging in someone else’s house because it requires getting our judgments and ourselves out of the way so that we can do the work God has asked us to do. In Opal’s house, we worked to be respectful, gentle and kind with her belongings and with her. We worked absolutely as hard as we could, sweat dripping from our faces in 96 degree temperatures. We wanted to make her house safer and more beautiful for her. We wanted Opal to know that she was loved and cared for with nothing attached. She was the person God gave to us for the week and so we gave our all to her. We sawed, drilled, hammered, measured, cut paneling, threw out tons of bent nails that wouldn’t go into that blasted hard wood, (and brainstormed a better way!) ripped down wallpaper, put together beds, moved furniture, placed flooring down, lovingly removed, washed and replaced ALL her 210 angel figurines, painted outdoor furniture, purchased cushions for the outdoor glider and chair, ripped up the old porch and then created a new porch complete with banisters, handrail and an amazing new gate. WHEW! All in 5 days! What a pleasure it was.

As I’ve said, the connection between Opal and us grew as the week went on. We got so we laughed and told jokes with her – we really enjoyed getting to know her and she enjoyed getting to know us. The Spirit of God is felt in connections. Opal one day said to Amber, “why do people like you come to help people like me?” We pondered this at worship that night – sorry that anyone even thinks people like me and people like you. But we hope that we were able to bridge that gap to a degree with the grace and love of God. 

(Deb on bottom left, with Opal above directing the work)


As far as being on the receiving end of hospitality - one night the Presbyterian Church near Deer Lodge, Tennessee served us a spaghetti supper. They didn’t know us, but because they were thankful that we were in their town and serving their people, they wanted to do this for us – to show their gratitude to complete strangers. We were blessed.

Another night we invited our Deer Lodge friends (who 5 years ago were strangers to us) to eat supper with us – enjoying laughter and chatter for a few hours. We wanted to feed these saints for whom we are thankful and to demonstrate our gratitude.

My pastor and I sat in the living room and chatted with a family for whom we rehabbed their entire home in 2011. They invited us once again into their home to enjoy a few moments of reminiscing. It was wonderful to see them again, in addition to the work that we completed on their home when they too were strangers. But because our lives connected in 2011, as we extended the hospitality of God – we are no longer strangers.

In addition to hospitality moments, we had a number of great God’s Holy Presence moments on this trip. We were laying Luan down on the uneven floor as a subflooring in Opal’s bedroom. We measured very carefully and then measured again, before we cut. But when they all fit seamlessly - we rejoiced – it was such a Holy moment. God was present because we could not have done that alone. We felt the help of the Spirit of the Lord. This happened over and over again. Just after that I needed a 27” piece to fit into the closet space and so I went outside in search of a scrap of Luan. What did I find? But a 27” piece of Luan that fit perfectly into the closet. All for Opal. The people in our group that were out front working on the porch had similar experiences. Only they were dealing with stacks of cement blocks that needed to be level and straight and they kept fitting perfectly. We were blessed. Our focus was Opal – we wanted it to be good for her.

We also learned a lot about God’s Grace on this trip. Another stranger in our midst, if only for the first morning… was a gentleman named John. He was one of our crew leaders at Opal’s home. He works for Morgan Scott Project through Americorps, which means he has an income, but not much of one. He also works in the evening at a horse farm in an attempt to make ends meet. He talked often and proudly of his 17-year-old daughter and his wife whom he supports. We began feeling connected with him as many of us have children as well and we know all about the desire to take care of them. Eric, one of our group members, enjoyed talking with him while ripping down the old and building up the new porch. He learned that John had a bad tire, which he couldn’t afford to repair. Then later we all learned that John was currently homeless – we were all shocked with this news. Eric began thinking that he would purchase a new tire for John so that getting back and forth to work was not a problem for him. (One less thing to worry about) When Eric ran this by the head of Morgan Scott, he learned some things about John that weren’t so good – of times when he wasn’t very responsible or even downright irresponsible. Eric began questioning whether buying him the tire was the right thing to do? He shared this w our group one night and so we all wrestled with this issue. In the end, we all got o the point of saying, have we not all been there? Have we been perfect on our earthly walk? And anyway, what would Jesus do? Why, just because he has made some bad decisions does he not deserve this particular gift of grace? After that we decided to pool our money so Eric could buy him 4 new tires for his vehicle, which is really what he needed. He took John on Thurs afternoon to get these on his car – the trip was fraught with difficulties, such as those that people in poverty deal with on a regular basis. The car didn’t’ have all the lug nuts and so they wouldn’t put on the new tires until he had those. So off they went somewhere else to purchase the lug nuts he needed. Eventually, after a long fashion, John had all the tires on his car. This would enable him to get to work as needed. One of my friends stated, we are building more than just ramps and porches, we are building hope.

When we complete a mission trip we are intentional about doing God’s work and being God’s people. Believing that God lives in each of us and that God loves everyone exactly the same. Unconditional love, grace, hospitality to strangers and being intentional in God becomes much harder in every day life. Life sometimes gets in the way, we are busy, and as humans it is hard to maintain that intentional focus. But still we must try every day as we work to know God more intimately in prayer, worship and staying open to God and what God has for us each day. On the mission trip we grew in our faith as we loved and were mindful of others. We grew in faith as we experienced God’s Holy presence and gave grace where it was needed.

As people of God we are called to do things that aren’t necessarily in our comfort zones…things that are challenging – journeys that stretch and grow us. Going on mission trips can be challenging and risky. Loving strangers can be challenging and risky. Letting go of our judgments and letting God open our hearts can be challenging and risky. But at the end of the day, the nitty-gritty, blazing hot, sweaty, extremely hard work is completely satisfying. That is the presence of God. In the end we all benefit from contributing to the needs of the saints and extending hospitality and grace to strangers. By doing this, the kingdom of God on earth grows a little bit more. God Bless each of us as we work to find this God of the universe more and more deeply in each of our lives and in the lives of one another. And continue to serve and be “doers” of the Word, to the best of our abilities.