In Praise of the Weird

21.07 It is by our ‘imperfections’ that we move towards each other, towards wholeness of relationship. It is our oddities, our grittiness, the occasions when we hurt or are hurt, that challenge us to a deeper knowledge of each other. Our sins have been said to be stepping-stones to God. Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting, 5th edition

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school learning to be a psychologist, I took a class that was a little different from most. Buried in the study of psychological abnormalities was a course with the unappealing name of ‘mental hygiene’. It was essentially a class in normal psychology. 

Under the guidance of a Freudian psychoanalyst, we studied normal behavior. One day the professor said something that I will always remember: “normal isn’t always healthy, it’s just what most people do — it’s just average.” We learned that abnormal behavior is often a simple exaggeration of the normal – a matter of degree.

She went on to say that differences from normal, ‘weirdness’ if you will, can be a mark of a strong character and can often be found in those who make important contributions to their community. To emphasize that point, she said (with a chuckle), “do you realize that if I could have got my hands on Jesus Christ he would have been the best carpenter in the world?”

In this sense we are all abnormal. And that’s a good thing. It is our differences from the crowd that let us do the work we are called to do. Our weirdness, our not-normality is also often the thing that helps us to know what that work is. 

I think of this sometimes, and am reminded that often the things that most annoy us about others are the things that enable them to do the work that we admire.

For example, I believe that it was George Fox’s arrogance that allowed him to challenge the powers that be and to persevere in the face of great resistance and personal risk to found our spiritual community. I wonder if Greta Thunberg’s Aspergers allows her to resist the social pressure that would have crippled me as a teenager and to do what she knows is right. Closer to home, I think of a Friend who is annoyingly persistent when they want something, not taking no for an answer. That fact has allowed them to do amazing things in the local community. 

We are made the way we are for a reason, and we might think about exploring the usefulness our “not-normality” can bring to our community. We try to get rid of our weirdnesses, but they are also our strengths. We need them to do the work we are called to do. 

As Quakers we sometimes celebrate our collective differences from the mainstream, from the normal. Our acceptance of those differences, those ‘weirdnesses’, can allow Friends to feel empowered to do work that others shy away from: work with refugees, in prisons, against the arms trade. 

Other times we find ourselves uncomfortable with individuals who are different from the Quaker mainstream – those who have a different theology, a different accent, a different way of approaching our Meeting. 

What if we could accept our own and others’ weirdness as an integral part of the gifts they bring to our community? Would that change how we perceive and live with all of those who are not like us? Can we see the gift in the differences among those in our community? Can we show the love of God to those we would like to avoid? 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 9 April 2021

Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels

A Rule to Live By

My Friend Ken Orchard was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 as a series of precepts to guide the life of monks living together. Ken has written his own Rule as a guide for his life. When I first heard it read it touched my heart as ministry.  He has allowed me to publish it here.

  • Open your heart, mind and soul to the divine energy for every hour of every day. Live faithfully to your sacred potential. Make the divine energy central to you and in you and be true to it in all that you do. 
  • Surrender yourself to the divine energy without reservation and put the divine will even before your own. 
  • Total commitment brings change. Little by little or vast area by vast area let your life be transmuted in the life of the divine energy.
  • The basis of simplicity is centring on the divine energy. The heart of the monastic life is to live always in the presence of that energy. 
  • Offer yourself as a place of prayer. Enter silence joyfully. May your presence be one that heals divisions and expands hearts. 
  • Celebrate embodiment. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine energy. Worship it with unparalleled commitment and a complete love that is without self-interest. Work to make the holy manifest. 
  • Refrain from possession. Love expands the spirit, possession contracts it.
  • Treat all religions and spiritual paths, and those who follow them, with honour and respect. 
  • Seek the company of those who will deepen your spirituality and support your journey.
  • Create community wherever you are. Make of your heart a home for the homeless, a refuge for the poor. 
  • Be simple, honest and authentic. Welcome humility and vulnerability into your life. Express your gratitudes and appreciations openly.
  • Surrender yourself to the true glorifying of the divine energy.

In-Between Spaces

How might we be transformed as we traverse the ‘in-between’ spaces?

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the ‘in-between’ spaces: that pause between inhale and exhale when there is neither; that moment when a ball thrown up is poised between rising and falling; that narrow space between fear and hope which is the place of faith. 

When I center down into worship I look for these ‘in-between” spaces. It’s here that I find the opening through which God can enter. It’s here that I lose myself and make the possibility of finding something greater than me. 

There is another in-between space, not so calm and sacred. It was famously described by Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl as the space between stimulus and response. In this space, he tells us, lies our power to choose. And in that choice lies our freedom and our growth. This is a place of possibility and power – the power to choose is the power to change.

Our current covid-limited lives feel like an in-between space for me. Sometimes it feels like the pause between inhale and exhale, or the momentary equilibrium of the ball in the air. But other times (most of the time, really) it feels like a crucible, a place of transformation, a place between nothing and infinite potential. Like Frankl’s in-between space, this feels like a place of possibility, a place poised between going forward and going back. What will we make of this, I wonder? 

The possibilities for change and transformation are many. On a personal level we can use this time to learn new skills, to adopt new habits, to mend broken relationships, or to stay the way we are. On a familial or community level we can grow closer or we can fragment and break. On a political level we can unify or divide. On an environmental level we can go back into ruin or move forward into the unknown world of new ways to live. Or perhaps just go back to a simpler way of life. 

Sometimes I am drawn into worry about the future or about someone I care about. When that happens I find myself in another ‘in-between’ space, this one between the things I hope for and the things I fear. While this space is in reality fairly wide, it can feel very narrow and if I’m not careful I can allow fear to take me in a spiral down into despair. This is the place of uncertainty. It is also the place of faith, where I can find the courage to simply take the next right step. 

I’ve recently been reminded of another Victor Frankl quote, to the effect that it’s not important what we expect of life, but rather what life expects of us. He follows that by saying that we should stop asking about the meaning of life. We should instead think of ourselves as being questioned by life.  Perhaps this covid ‘in-between’ time is life’s way of questioning us, of asking whether we will go forward or back, how we will grasp the possibility of this in-between space.

As Quakers, we are challenged to let our lives speak. As we traverse this ‘in-between’ space, how will we be transformed? How will the message of our lives speak anew? In the place between fear and hope, how will our faith manifest itself? Will we grasp the possibility and power of this time or will we squander it? When our lives speak, what will they say?  

Author’s note: The ideas here were honed in a worship sharing session with some members of Woodbrooke’s 2019-2021 Equipping for Ministry course., and was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 26 Feb 2021

For Our Sins

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left.

We are promised that Jesus “will come again in glory…”

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left. In every generation there are those prophetic voices echoing the message of Jesus: love one another and let your life speak. Often we kill them. Three examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Luxemburg and Mahatma Gandhi.

In a recent Woodbrooke course we learned that crucifixion was a political death – the Roman equivalent of being hanged, drawn and quartered. It was meant to be painful and public and humiliating. A warning to those who follow — both those who would come after and those who were his disciples.

We are told that Jesus died this death for our sins. To redeem us for the sins we have committed but also for the sins whose burden we carry that were committed by Adam and Eve, two people who didn’t actually exist historically. 

But what if Jesus didn’t die for our sins but because of our sins? Not to pay for our sins but because the sins we carried couldn’t let him and his message live? 

The sins that were responsible for this particularly cruel and harsh political death are still with us: pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire. And they are the ones responsible for the continued assassination of those who tell us that we are enough, that we are worthy of love and so is everyone else. They tell us that we should love one another because God loves us just as we are.They tell us that we are all equal and that none are more equal than others. When we can accept this we lose the need to dominate and control others. We also lose the ability to be dominated and controlled, which can be a dangerous thing.

Sin separates us from the love of God. These particular sins – pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire – also separate us from our fellow humans. This separation is part of what enables the dehumanizing process which allows us to kill each other. This separation is lost if we can believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God, who loves us just as we are; that is why this message is a threat to those who need for us to be able to kill each other. 

The message that God loves us is also the message that we are not separated from God. The radical danger of that message is that if we believe this then we don’t need elite power structures to ‘save’ us from ourselves and each other. We only need to know that we are loved and that we can pass that love to others. It’s that action of denying / dismantling the power structures that triggers the need to wipe out the ones who teach it, often in cruel and very public ways.

I believe that Jesus died not to save us from sin today but because he was saving people at that time and in that place, as those who are murdered today are saving people in this time and in this place. The need to dominate and control cannot allow this radical message of love and equality to continue to be spread.

What if we could hold the belief that we are good enough just as we are? Would we be able to give up the need to dominate and control others? Could we give up pride and ambition? Could we know that we don’t need to accomplish anything more than we have already done? What if we truly loved ourselves and others, as equal recipients of God’s grace? 

If we could do that we might be able to vanquish the sins which separate us from the love of God and thus cause the death of those who teach us to love one another. 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Worship

Does God need worship from us? What does that mean?

Will Rogers famously said, “God created man in his image and man returned the favour.” We imagine God in our own image. I was raised with images of Jesus as a blue-eyed European who looked a little like my brother and God as an old white man standing on a cloud and judging us all. We not only create God in our image, we give God the gender of kings. 

I believe that these images and the ways in which we interact with them arose in a time and place where rulers needed to be sure of loyalty and fealty to hold on to their power. God was imagined as what was needed at that time – the ultimate ruler who would free God’s people from whoever was oppressing them. Thus the psalms speak of God protecting us from our enemies, smiting them and leading us to safe places.

Today we still interact with God based on the image of God as a powerful ruler, the king of kings, who will destroy our enemies and raise us up to a noble level above others. We worship God and sing praises and continually tell God how great God is. 

We know these physical images of Jesus and God are not really the right ones and many of us have no problem with re-imagining God in other images. We begin to see reconstructed images of Jesus as he might actually have looked. But how do we feel when we are asked to interact with God differently, in ways that are reflections of a new imagining of God? Not as a powerful ruler who will protect us but as a loving presence who can guide us and show us how to love others. 

Take, for example, the expectation that we will worship God, i.e. to acknowledge the worth of God, to show admiration for God, and to adore God. Does God really want this? Does God need our approval? Did Jesus in the manger need to be worshipped by the Magi, to be told how great he was? In truth, he probably could have used a room at the inn, some clean swaddling clothes and a bodyguard to protect him from Herod.

I do not believe that God cares where I worship God or even if I do. I don’t think I will find God in meeting houses or churches or holy sites – unless I bring God with me. God doesn’t live in sacred places, God lives in sacred actions, in how we treat each other and how we show the love of God in our lives.

The amazing fact of Quaker worship is that we sit in silence not to tell God how great God is (surely God has better things to do than listen to that?). No, in silence together we wait. Sometimes, only sometimes, we feel a connection to God and to the ones around us and if we’re very lucky, to ourselves. Our true selves. 

When that happens, we have our marching orders—“pick up your cross and follow me”. The message is clear: not “worship me”, but “follow me.” Feed the hungry, tend the sick, welcome the stranger, let your life speak. Take the love you’ve been given unconditionally and pass it on. Give it to others who need it, who need to feel that miraculous connection that was given to you. 

I believe that bringing the kingdom of God to earth is about bringing the love of God to the earth. One person, one action at a time. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 5 Feb 2021

Perfect Imperfection

We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do.

In the church I grew up in we memorized a creed, a statement of the beliefs we held in common. The life of Jesus was described this way: he was “conceived by the holy spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried…” 

This creed ignores the fact that between “born of the virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” lies the whole story. That’s where we find the love of God shown in the life of this man who left his family to tell us how much God loves us as we are, to minister to the poor and oppressed, to bring God to the godforsaken. 

He said to us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”

I do not find God in steeplehouses or meeting houses or even in meeting for worship very often. I find God in the actions that let my life speak. I believe that Jesus isn’t present in the ones who feed the hungry or in the hungry who are fed. Rather, he is present in the action of feeding them – the action that binds them together in a connection that is godly. 

The message from my childhood church was that I was not (and would never be) good enough. That I was born tainted by sin, that nothing I could do short of confessing my imperfections and following directions of men who had no idea about my life would make me acceptable to the God who created me. I learned that I had to be perfect to live a godly life. Or at least try to be.

However, I once visited a church whose pastor said that God loves us JUST AS WE ARE. I was in my 40s and this was something I had never heard in church before. It was absolutely life changing for me. I broke down in tears. 

We all struggle to be perfect, to live up to the perceived perfection of Jesus, to earn the love of God. But what if God loves us just as we are? What if we can learn to accept or even embrace our imperfection? That might mean also accepting the imperfection of others, understanding that they too are doing their best to struggle with their imperfect-ness. What if we could love others unconditionally, just as they are? As God does.

As a Quaker I believe that it is not necessary to be perfect or cleansed or absolved to have a connection with God. It is not necessary to feel love for all of our fellow humans or to be always calm in our spirit. It is only necessary to do the work and the connection with God will manifest itself.

I have heard that our ministry, our ‘right work’ is where our great joy meets the world’s needs. We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do. We can all bring the message of Jesus – that we can and should love one another, that we can and should feed the hungry, tend the sick, bring the kingdom of God to this imperfect world. We are the hands that God has to do this work.

This, then is the measure of our perfect imperfection. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 31 Dec 2020

Photo by sum+it from Pexels

Quaker Roots

Our roots nourish us and hold us steady. But we are not our roots — we grow beyond them into something different, something new.

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you? Advices and Queries 4, BYM Quaker Faith and Practice

We are taught that Quakerism is rooted in Christianity, but without much explanation of what that means. In the same way that early Christianity was rooted in Judaism, we are rooted in Christianity. It is our spiritual culture, the ground from which we grew, the language and concepts we use to describe our direct experiences with God. 

Our roots nourish us and hold us steady, but we are not our roots. Rather, we grow beyond them. In the same way that early Christians grew from their Jewish roots into something different, Quakers take their Christian roots and grow into something different, which fits our experience with God. 

Jesus was rooted in his family, in his culture and in his religion.  They informed every aspect of his life. But he was not only that culture – he went beyond it. He even rejected large parts of it. 

I can’t claim to be a student of the Bible, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus never said, “pick up your cross and worship me”. I think what he said was “…follow me”. Do what I do: tend the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger.” I believe that the Quaker form of worship helps us to connect to our roots and then go beyond them to “let our lives speak”; to work for the world we want to see. 

Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Quakerism began as a return to early Christianity, to the work of Jesus. In many ways, Quakers continue to do this, to respond to Jesus rather than to the Christ. To follow the one who said that we need to “love one another”, rather than the one who is represented in many modern Christian churches. 

I often think about Jesus – the man, not the Christ. I wonder, for example, what kind of accent did he have and what did that accent say about him? How did he part his hair? What did he call his mom? We hear he was a carpenter—was there one piece he created that he was particularly proud of? Did he like his work? What did he say when he smashed his thumb with a hammer? What was his favorite color? His favorite meal? His favorite swear word? Could he swim? There is so much we do not know about this man and about the things that formed him to be the one we still talk about 2000 years after his death. 

One of the things that first attracted me to Quakers is the notion that revelation didn’t stop 2000 years ago. It continues today, as Friends wait in anticipation for divine inspiration and then share their ministry with each other and with the world. 

What does this mean, then? The mystical nature of Quakerism means that my experience may not be yours. However, I believe that the roots of Quakerism are not in the steeplehouses and the hierarchies of Christianity. I believe that those roots are in the man who taught us to love one another. It’s that simple and that difficult. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 22 Oct 2020

Photo by Evie Shaffer from Pexels

Forgiveness

We all carry around resentments, wounds that impair our ability to function as a whole person.

Forgiveness. Who doesn’t seek it? Who doesn’t need it? Who doesn’t crave it? How do we get it? We all carry around resentments, wounds that impair our ability to function as a whole person. 

There is a story that the author Corrie Ten Boom was asked to forgive one of the Nazi guards from Ravensbruck, the prison camp where she and her sister were imprisoned and where her sister died. She found that she wasn’t able to do it. She prayed to be given the strength, and at the moment she committed to making the effort she reported that she was filled with a healing warmth that she called the love of God.

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare tells us “…in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” In that prayer we ask, “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”

This can be understood as meaning ‘in the same manner’ as we forgive others. To the extent that we can completely forgive someone else we can be completely forgiven. If the best we can summon up is incomplete and grudging forgiveness that’s what we find for ourselves. Our forgiveness of others is a prerequisite for being forgiven ourselves.

“AS we forgive others” can also be understood as meaning ‘at the same time’ as we forgive others. It’s a simultaneous process of healing which we initiate. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned” I think that this is what Corrie Ten Boom experienced.  It’s an interlocking action. Or is it the same one? Is forgiving others the same as forgiving ourselves?

The moment when we are able to give up our identity as the wounded one is the moment we are made whole.