Friday, June 29, 2007

Should Quakers Become More "Evangelical"?

Of course I do realize that many Quakers are already evangelical. But there is a tendency in some varieties of Quakerism to be wary of being evangelical. And so what I am asking is whether those who are wary of being evangelical should reconsider. Are we hiding our lights under bushels? Are we withholding knowledge of something that other seekers would find valuable? Is there more that we could do to make our presence known more widely? Is there more that we could do to be inviting?

Let me brainstorm some ideas. Some of these, admittedly, are wild ideas!

A wild idea: Start a Quaker TV station.

Less wild: Create a Quaker-produced TV series (for public TV) and/or radio series (for public radio) not about Quakerism as such, but simply offering programs on matters of Quakerly concern. For example, there could be programs on pacifism and nonviolence; programs on environmental sustainability; programs on social and economic justice; programs on the role of education in society; programs on understanding world religions (including but not featuring Quakerism); programs on creating and nurturing a positive sense of community; programs on simplicity.

While public TV and public radio already have excellent programs that touch on some of these themes, what I am envisioning is a way of doing a series that makes the Quaker background visible, but in a very subtle, understated way.

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine how this would be possible. Our only models are the overtly evangelical Christian stations. But public TV and public radio have snuck in a limited amount of subtle advertising, and their viewers and listeners do not object too much to this back-door way of letting business interests establish something of a foothold. Even so, it is almost impossible to believe that they would let a particular religious group establish a foothold in a similarly subtle way. We live in a world in which, ironically, business interests are still regarded as “innocent” while religious interests are regarded with high suspicion: even though business interests have become more and more self-serving and increasingly exert an oppressive influence upon the lowest-paid employees, whereas true religion has little power in today’s world and religious evangelism at heart desires what is truly best for people (love; spiritual enlightenment; freedom; salvation; a well-lived life; healthy ways of processing life’s disappointments; a sense of community).

But just because the world is currently a bit irrational in this respect does not mean that the tide will never change. And, anyway, I think it is time for Quakers to highlight a crucial difference between Quakerism and most other religious traditions (at least most other Christian traditions): that Quakerism offers a unique kind of space in which to explore questions of religious faith. The point is not to press people into conformity of belief. The point instead is to offer community support and guidance in reflecting deeply upon one’s own experience, clarifying for oneself one’s own beliefs, and integrating one’s beliefs with one’s way of life. At its best, Quakerism offers an ideal balance between community and individuality, tradition and innovation, thought and practice. There are principles that shape Quaker faith and practice (e.g., simplicity, community, integrity, peace, justice), but these principles are rich and flexible concepts that individuals are free to interpret and integrate into their lives in ways that meaningfully connect with their own experience.

And so I do think that it would be possible to start a public TV or public radio series that would subtly but clearly convey to viewers or listeners this unique feature of Quakerism: showing that Quakerism offers a distinctive approach to religious inquiry, which truly invites all into a kind of space that supports without oppressing.

But, because I think that this idea may still be too radical for today’s world, I do have another, perhaps more realistic idea:

What if local Friends Meetings offered discussion groups on religion and/or spirituality open to all? Again, this would not be a forum to advocate for Quakerism specifically: but to offer Quakerism’s openness to exploring matters of faith to the world beyond those who have already discovered this about Quakerism.

Quaker Meetings already often do a nice job of having regular reading or discussion groups, adult education classes, and/or worship sharing groups for its own members and attenders. Some of these are specifically geared for newcomers.

But I am speaking of something different here: an opportunity for people to explore questions of faith that is open even to those who have not attended Meeting and perhaps do not intend to do so. Again, this would have to be set up very carefully, so that, on the one hand, people would know that it is the Quakers organizing and sponsoring and guiding these discussions; but on the other hand, it would be very very clear that the purpose is not to “convert” people into Quakerism specifically.

Imagine a world in which all Quaker Meetings everywhere did this, and people just understood that this is something that Quakers do: provide an open and supportive space for people freely to explore their questions of faith.

Imagine a world in which young people who start reconsidering their own religious disillusionment, and young couples who begin worrying about their children’s spiritual development, look for the Quaker-sponsored opportunities for spiritual discussion as their starting point for how to make decisions about their own faith lives and their children’s religious upbringing. Imagine that some individuals and families find these discussion groups the site where they decide to reconnect with their parents’ faith traditions; others explore a number of different local churches and process their experiences in the group, eventually finding their own new home church; others come from different faith traditions and just want to connect with other seekers in an interfaith way, and see these Quaker-sponsored discussion groups as the ideal way to do so. Of course a few might decide to join the Quakers, but there would never be a sense of pressure that that is ultimately the “right” decision or the “best” path for everyone.

Some, after joining some other church or religious tradition, might keep coming to the Quaker-sponsored discussion group, because this is where they feel most free to process and share what they learn in their newfound spiritual home. Others might never formally join any religious group, finding that this discussion group alone serves their spiritual needs.

Imagine these groups becoming so popular that a given Meeting needs to break the original group down into smaller groups, and has a team running five or six of these groups at a time.

Imagine this becoming a site for a new spiritual awakening in North America, the U.K., and beyond.

(I plan to engage my own Meeting in a discernment process about whether we ourselves should try something like this. I'll keep you posted on how this unfolds!)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Quaker House Dream

I had a dream last night, about visiting some kind of Friends intentional community.

This community resided in two houses that were right next to each other. They were grand old houses, with lots of staircases, alcoves, winding corridors, and rooms set apart for libraries, lounges, and meeting spaces.

The doors to the residents' rooms were generally open, inviting socializing. The rooms were comfortably cluttered, displaying the interesting and involved lives of the residents. The residents themselves were friendly, open, and honest. Their clothing tended to be a bit shabby, but they wore these clothes with unselfconscious confidence, not afraid to appear a bit "peculiar."

I was delighted to be there. I wandered through, treasuring the faded grandeur of the place, delighting in the new surprises around each bend. I loved the people -- my people. While I was a visitor here, I knew and they knew that I had lived in similar Quaker communities myself.

And yet I was worried. While I was glad that the historical beauty of the buildings had not been ruined by the kind of renovation that destroys historical integrity, I was seriously worried that the general disrepair was close to making the buildings uninhabitable. Stairs creaked and swayed under my footsteps. "If we started making critical repairs right now, could we still save these buildings?" I wondered. "Or is it already too late?"

The residents seemed happily oblivious to the seriousness of this problem, taking pride in the "simplicity" of not spending too much money on what they regarded as cosmetic enhancements to the building. The quality of their community life was indeed high, but I feared that they underestimated the fundamental importance of tending to the buildings that housed them, that brought them together under one roof, enabling the communal life they so treasured.

I think this dream has meaning for me on two levels:

On one level, it is about my own reaffirmation (after my busy year) of the importance of taking care of my own physical self.

But it is also and especially about my growing concern for Quakerism itself. Quakerism is like an old and beautiful building. Over time, new rooms have been built, making for an interesting "architecture" of winding passageways and alcoves, libraries and meeting rooms. It is not lavishly decorated, but the "simplicity" that is prized instead evolves to a kind of clutter we barely notice because we see through that clutter to the rich engagement with worthy issues in the world that the clutter symbolizes. But the newcomer may just think, "what a mess!" and misunderstand. And though the building originally was solid, lack of attention to basic maintenance has now made it rickety, in ways we do not want to believe. We think that ancient beauty speaks for itself and will somehow maintain itself. We have gotten used to the way the stairs sway under our feet. We dare not think ahead to what it would mean if the building gave way or had to be evacuated.

If we started right now, could it be saved?

I think that the metaphor of historic renovation is a good one for us to think about. "Renovation" means "to make new again."

How do we "make new again" the basic structures of our faith and practice?

When you renovate an old building, you don't find old wood that has become as weak and broken down as the wood you are replacing. You carve new wood into the elegant old shapes.

When you renovate an old building, you do not always choose to replicate everything as closely as possible. You apply new and improved techniques for wiring, insulation, plumbing, and heating. You may even work to integrate new innovations such as energy efficiency tastefully with the best of the historic features you wish to preserve.

What would it mean for us to strengthen, repair, and polish the traditional features of our faith and practice we most prize?

What new innovations are worth incorporating, and how do we weave these in without destroying what we don't want to lose?

How might we re-organize the clutter that threatens to undermine the simplicity we strive for? How might we better present to newcomers the essential elements of our faith and practice, in a simple and attractive way that invites them in instead of confusing them and putting them off?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Sense of Peace

Now that I have had some time to rest and wind down from the FAHE conference, a sense of peace settles upon my soul.

I really have made it through an extraordinarily busy and complex year, and I did well with it overall. We hired two new people for our small philosophy department of four. I organized a big campus-wide lecture on global climate change that was an important experience for all who participated. A small group of us initiated a process for developing a peace studies program -- the process is well underway but not yet complete. My department created a department assessment plan. I participated in a review of a neighboring philosophy department; co-authored part of a big accreditation self-study report; revived our student philosophy club; advised; taught a bunch of classes; chaired an active campus committee; played a major role in planning the FAHE conference; and attended to a whole host of other routine tasks of being chair (managing the budget, planning course schedules, etc.).

Even though I have expressed some doubts and concerns in recent postings about the toll on me of the relentless busyness of this past year, now that I have had a moment to breathe, I can say that I am glad for all of this.

It forced me to develop new techniques for staying organized.

In having to work with lots of people in various complex ways, I learned well my strengths and limitations in working with people. I learned that I am capable of staying strong and clear under pressure. But I also confirmed that I do prefer it when my life is filled with projects that are mostly just up to me, such as writing projects. Having to summon and coordinate the energy of lots of people just is hard on me. There are others who love this and are good at it. With effort, I can be good at it too (because basically I like people and am good at staying in touch with the ideals of joint effort), but it takes a huge toll on me emotionally.

Still, I am glad to have tested this so thoroughly. Leadings do call forth from us new personal challenges. Somehow I feel it is really important for me to have learned what I have learned this year, about myself, about how people work together, and about how the world works.

Now, having learned, I am really ready to make new decisions about how I want to focus my life. What I have especially missed this past semester was time to work on writing for publication. Most of the busyness of last year consisted of special projects that now are complete and will not repeat next year. Now I am free to set my writing as my highest priority.

I feel this last year has been filled with service I had to do, and am glad I did, but my next new learning is this:

The world on its own is not going to open up in the ideal way that invites me to give that which I uniquely have to give. It's up to me to find a way to give what I have uniquely to give. That is the nature of gift.

With some embarrassment, I realize now that all along I have wanted the world to reach out to me in the ideal way that would perfectly guide my growth and development, and ask with clarity and appreciation for what I uniquely have to give. But the world just doesn't do this, for anyone. The world does ask much of us, but what it asks is not necessarily what is really ours to give. It is part of the responsibility that each of us has as individuals to learn how to discern our true gifts and live them into being.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Back from FAHE

I am now back from this year's Friends Association for Higher Education conference, held at Earlham College. The theme this year was "Scholars for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability." Since I played a big role in planning this year's conference, I cannot speak "objectively" about how it went, but I got the sense that it was a meaningful experience for the participants. This year, we had times for people to meet in small groups to share how the conference theme applied to their own lives, and people really seemed to enjoy this opportunity to have reflection time and connection time built into the conference program (highly unusual for academic conferences!).

This conference also provided an occasion for me to meet Richard M, of "A Place to Stand," in person! It was wonderful to have this opportunity! Just as I suspected from his blog and his comments on my blog, he is a fine person and I really enjoyed talking with him.

Now that the conference is behind me, the last of the Big Projects I have been involved in this year is complete and my summer opens up suddenly with far less busyness and stress, and I am so glad!

I plan to write more about thoughts and ideas generated during this year's conference in future postings. The conference got me thinking about Quakerism (as well as higher education, and the intersection of the two) in new ways. It was also interesting to hear some buzz about the Quaker blogging world during the conference. So, I'll be sharing more about all of this soon!

Friday, June 08, 2007


Here is a good definition of pacifism: the quest to overcome evil without doing evil, and without becoming evil oneself.

This definition is inspired from this quotation:

"How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil -- and becoming evil ourselves? I found myself reluctantly being pushed, simply by the logic of the inquiry, to a position of consistent nonviolence." Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Galilee Doubleday, 1998, pp. 7-8.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Pondering Faithfulness

I have been a little haunted by my comment in my last posting about feeling like a Machine, a formidable Deadline Meeter! After writing that (a true enough expression of my experience at the time), I found myself thinking back to an earlier posting when I was just starting to feel the structures of the System clamping down on me. I stepped into that with a prayer, fully aware that life would get demanding, but knowing too that my acceptance of this was what I needed to do in order to follow through in my work with effectiveness. I had to trust that I had set up my commitments well, and that if I could just hold up under the pressure of it all, the end result would be the beneficial changes that I had hoped to effect.

Now I emerge, bedraggled, from the other side. It was an endurance test. I did survive. It's no wonder I'm exhausted now, and, in my exhausted state, ambivalent about the personal cost.

So I have to come back to the question of faithfulness. If I've been truly faithful, I shouldn't worry about the cost. But my worrying about the cost is my way of testing my leading, now in retrospect. Was I faithful? Was what I did done in faithfulness?

What I can see is this: I survived; the things that needed to get done got done pretty well, and so I was effective enough. (One big project remains -- the upcoming conference -- and so this is not yet a complete tally.)

But was I faithful?

Even just yesterday, I would have expressed some doubt. You can see some of that doubt seeping through in my most recent postings.

But today I begin to see things differently.

Certainly I have tried to be faithful.

But what is true faithfulness? (Is trying enough?)

The doubts I've had really arise because my life is not really moving in the direction I would wish, but today I begin to wonder whether my own plan is a very good one after all. Which is the voice of God: is it expressed through the people and events that materialize in my life every day, or is it expressed through my unhappiness when those requests or events bring me anxiety or pain or fatigue?

Is my true destiny what actually happens in my life, and are the "could have beens" just fantasies? Or does being faithful require my being more assertive than I yet have been at not letting life force me in a direction too very different from the one I would like my life to take?

Is God speaking through the actualities I contend with, or the potentialities I feel stirring in my soul? (Or some mixture of the two -- but if so, which dimensions of each, then?)

Or another way of thinking about faithfulness: in this earlier posting, I wondered how much one's level of awareness and state of being matters when upholding prior commitments. Here's what I wrote then:

If I’ve set things up well in my life, then I can trust that the flow of my work will unfold in a beneficial way, for me and for those whose lives are affected by my work.

Does my attitude or state of being at every moment matter? If at times I am stressed, anxious, tired, or hurried as I do my work, is my accomplishment therefore diminished? Or is it okay that my state of being isn’t always calm, collected, and centered?

Quakers are rightfully dubious about ritual, worried that when certain patterns of behavior become habitual, our participating in them can become rote and mechanical. Over time, such rituals can lose their meaning. Or at least our sense of their meaning can fade.

And so my follow-up question here is: is the loss of a sense of meaning also a loss of faithfulness? (At the moment I think not. I definitely have had moments of losing that sense, but still think it was right for me to follow through -- in faith! Or am I just rationalizing?)

In asking these pointed and difficult questions, I overemphasize what has been hard for me lately. It is important for me to point out that underneath all of this is a sense that my life is on the right track, and moving in an important direction.

Up close, a meaningful life has its difficult moments. My readers unfortunately see this close-up grappling with what is most difficult, without any sense of what my life looks like wholistically from the outside to put it into context.

In fact, I have trouble seeing what my life looks like wholistically from the outside!

Finally, I want to confess also to being haunted by Richard M's last question to me (that I still have not answered): what is the role of my Meeting as I discern these kinds of questions?

It is such an obvious question that I was taken by surprise by how surprised I was by his question!

I love my Meeting, and yet Richard's question revealed to me how little I have been sharing with my Meeting about what's really hard for me in life. Maybe I could ask my Meeting to help me with my discernment. Yet, how exactly would I focus my questions? What, at heart, am I trying to discern in my life?

Today I feel something new suddenly shifting and turning. I really am just emerging from a hard and demanding year. It's normal to be tired. Being tired does not necessarily mean that anything is wrong.

What if I just accept, and trust? What if I just let myself rest?

I offer more questions than answers, but these feel like good questions: questions through which I can find my way forward.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hello? Summer?

So, my semester is supposed to be over, no? So, where am I? Why haven't I been posting?

Strangely enough, the pace of my life does not feel it has lifted much. I has merely shifted from being almost-impossibly busy to just being like having a normal full-time job. Instead of working all my waking hours, I can finally get away with putting in an 8-hour day -- but without getting to my writing yet!!!

The reason is that, being chair of my department, I have had a continuing stream of deadlines, the last (?!?) being today.

Today I felt like I was in one of those cartoons of hot thirsty people clawing their way desperately across a desert towards what they hope is not just another mirage but an actual oasis. I dragged myself with great effort over to my office. With another enormous effort, I got myself to turn on my computer. With another huge effort, I found and opened the report I've been working on. With another immense effort, I stared all over again at the first two sentences of the 10-page (single-spaced) draft I had pieced together yesterday, and realized with dismay that I had to rework the whole thing.

As I worked away, I meanwhile tried to ignore the steady stream of e-mail coming in asking me all sorts of questions about the upcoming conference I've been involved in planning. I'll get back to that on Monday.

But when I finished today's report, I felt pretty good about it and all that it symbolizes about my role as chair. And, to tell the truth, I am looking forward to focusing my attention undistractedly on final details about the conference, which is coming together quite well (I think).

Ok, I say these optimistic things, but the real truth is that I am tired beyond belief and don't trust that I am seeing anything very clearly now.

I left my office at exactly 4:30 this afternoon, which is the time that offices officially close on our campus, but it felt way early to me. I walked home. I lay down on the couch and went out like a light for a modestly refreshing one-hour nap. When I woke up, I was very disoriented to find the slanting afternoon sun shining in my face.

Since I haven't been putting in extraordinarily long days at work, and I also confess to not having picked up my writing again, what have I been doing with my spare time?

I've gotten totally obsessed with family history and genealogy.

I discovered over the weekend and pulled out the folders of family information my mother had given me a few years ago, and began constructing my family tree. It has really been a remarkable experience.

I think my obsessive zeal in this reflects a kind of desperation to find myself again.

This past academic year (especially last semester) turned me into a Machine. I became an astonishingly (frighteningly) efficient Deadline-Meeter. I was a force to be reckoned with. Get between me and a deadline and watch out! That's what it will say on my tombstone: "She Met All Her Deadlines." Yet, sadly enough, it will be an exaggeration. Some less-important ones now and then I did not quite meet. Despite all of my effort, I have not been perfect.

But even if I was perfect at meeting all deadlines, this is not what I want as a claim to fame. My reputation for responsibility and efficiency actually get me into trouble. People have no qualms continuing to ask me to do things. Not only am I responsible and reasonably efficient, I remain cheerful, for the most part, in public. Cheerful, calm, reassuring.

Bad idea. Slowly I begin to learn the advantages of a little strategic grouchiness and ... and, yes, unpredictability! I fantasize about cultivating these qualities of character a bit, to see if that might help. Is there something I could spectacularly let drop? Hmm...

But I know this is just a fantasy. Anything I might drop would only end up hurting or inconveniencing the wrong people.

So, back to the story...

My resolve for the end of the academic year had been to re-establish a healthy lifestyle. First I was going to start the day after the last day of classes; then the day after my last final; then the day after I got grades in; then after graduation; then after our end-of-year faculty development workshops; and then, finally, after this June 1 deadline.

I was going to get enough sleep, pick up the running again, do stretching exercises on a daily basis, make sure I eat enough veggies and fruit, and fix my life.

Instead I have poured myself intensely into genealogy until the wee hours of the morning.

But what am I looking for? I don't even really know. It is the little mysteries that keep catching my attention. I see unanswered questions in my mother's notes, and I try to answer them. I see discrepancies, and I try to sort out which version is true.

Part of what prompted this is that it was my father's birthday over the weekend, and I tried to call him, but did not reach him. I have not seen my father in about 25 years. (My parents are divorced.) The last time I called him was about 8 years ago. It was good to talk. He expressed interest in keeping in touch. But the truth is, aside from once or twice when I was very young, he has never himself initiated contact. He is appreciative when I manage to reach him, but he never tries to be in touch with me. And I don't really know why.

Finding the family history he told me 8 years ago corroborated as I put together my family tree has been a moving experience for me. It has made that whole half of my background come alive in a way that it has not been in my life. I made a connection that suddenly added a branch to my tree that goes back to the 1400s, to Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. I had not fully grasped how solidly Scandinavian this branch of my family was.

But, even so, what does this mean, and why does this matter?

I feel at the focal point of a kind of magnifying glass. All of these people, scattered around the world and through time, have contributed to my own existence. I catch glimpses of their lives. A great-grandmother had 6 children, 5 of whom survived -- the event of the death of the 6th was a real event in her life, but remains a mystery to me. I trace their movements through the generations: Sweden, Utah, California. Ireland, Canada, Michigan, Ohio, California, Maryland, New York. I see occupations: farmer, carpenter, blacksmith, a turner of wood, proprietor of a printing shop. I watch their children (who turn out to be my grandparents, etc.) age in 10-year intervals through census reports. I marvel at how many children they had! I marvel at how common it seemed to be for families to live together for multiple generations in the same house. I wonder whether they got along well.

And then I wonder how much they thought ahead into the future, and what those who knew me as a small child thought of me, how they pictured my own future might be.

Would they be surprised?

It's hard not to get nostalgic about a simpler time. And yet I know that such nostalgia is an illusion. Was any time ever simple?

I feel more connected to history. I feel a strange sense of responsibility to my dead ancestors: to live a life that fulfills the promise they may have seen in me, or, if they never did meet me (as most of them did not), the promise they might have hoped for in a general sort of way for their family. Their family, of whom I am a part. Our family. My family too.

They were once vibrantly alive; now they are gone. Flickering shadows of their impact ripple across time.

I feel it as an honor and a privilege to be one of the living members.

Life is a gift.

Here I am. Here you are. What are we doing?

What we do is real. We leave our ripples as well, and if the world and human life survive, when we are long gone, maybe a family member on a spiritual quest will probe family history and find tantalizing signs of what our lives were like. Maybe they will read these very words, surprised to find me here (or you if you post a comment) waving to them across time, saying "hello."

And what I would like to say to that person is that some of us were trying really hard to grapple with the overwhelming problems that seem to face us now, hoping and praying that we human beings will collectively manage to steer human society onto a more sustainable course.

But right now, I really don't know what the future holds.

What I do know is that we still here now, alive together on this beautiful, amazing planet. We have created much that is remarkable. But there are problems too, and those problems are serious. And life is challenging. And I am tired.

But we are here now, and even in my present fatigue, I distinctly feel a flame of hope flickering in my soul, and there is strength in this flame. Flames seem fragile and intangible, but reach your hand out to touch one you soon discover it has its own kind of power.

Yes, I feel the strength of this flame of hope in my soul.