Friday, December 16, 2005

Christ and Christmas

It's Christmastime again -- that time of year when many people complain about the overcommercialization of Christmas or the "war on Christmas" by those trying to take Christ out of Christmas.

I am distressed over the lack of Christ in Christmas, but not in the same way that the "war on Christmas" people are. I don't want to get into an argument about saying "Merry Christmas" or what you should call your light-decorated office tree. You used to hear people talk about the "Christmas spirit" -- a feeling of love and joy, a spirit of giving - not of giving and getting presents, but of wanting to do things for other people. It might lead you to take a parking spot way out so that someone else might have one closer. It might lead you to anonymously pay for the food of the person behind you in the drive-through. It might lead you to smile and wave to strangers just because you are full of an inexplicable joy. I think that being in the "Christmas spirit" is really being in the spirit of Christ.

It feels like that spirit is being drowned out by the ring of cash registers, honking horns, and the shouts of people angry over the phrase "Happy Holidays".

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Greater Love

Every once in a while, I see a bumper sticker that quotes John 15:13 - "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The funny thing about seeing this quote on a bumper sticker is that it is often in the company of military-oriented stickers. In that context, the obvious implication is that being a soldier and risking your life for others is the greatest expression of love.

While I can appreciate the spirit of self-sacrifice behind that thought, I can't imagine that Jesus was trying to say "Greater love has no man than this, that a man go and kill other people for his friends." I wonder what the reaction would be if the verse ended with "lay down his life for his enemies." That seems more in line with Jesus teaching about loving our enemies. And in the end, that's what Jesus did.

Update: My friend Shane pointed me to this article entitled Thank God for Enemies.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Meeting for Worship for Peace

Tonight Atlanta Friends Meeting held our first Meeting for Worship for Peace. As I mentioned back in August, in a Meeting for Worship for Peace we hold individuals, groups and situations in the light, specifically with an orientation towards peace work.

Going in, I was a little apprehensive over how the meeting would turn out. My friend Dwight did a lot of work to get the meeting going, and we wondered if we would be the only ones there. We ended up with 7 people, which seems about usual for week-day events at our meeting house, and Dwight did a lovely job as the convener. The meeting was the kind of deep worship we had experienced during Meeting for Worship for Healing, and those in attendance seemed excited that it would be a monthly event.

Of the people we held in the light, only one of them was actually in attendance. As with Meeting for Worship for Healing, it seemed easier to focus on the person in attendance. Someone suggested that maybe we could bring a picture or some item representing someone not in attendance to help us focus a little better next time. We'll give that a try.

We get caught up in what we are doing sometimes, and forget that God is there as our foundation. I believe that this kind of meeting helps us maintain that connection.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Don't call me good, part 2

That verse from Mark about "No one is good except God alone" has still been on my mind. Specifically, I was thinking about the interpretation that suggests Jesus is essentially trying to get the man to reach the logical conclusion that he is God. I was talking to my friend Shane yesterday about it, and I said that from my frame of reference, I could read it as Jesus saying that he was good to the extent that he was doing God's will. So Shane, as usual, asked a very good question. "When did Jesus not do God's will?"

I don't have a direct answer for that, of course, but I have what I would call a suspicion. I believe that Jesus was born as a normal human being. During his life, he became so close to God that Jesus the human essentially ceased to be and he was the living will of God. If the account of Jesus' baptism is a historical account, and not an attempt to link him to John the Baptist, then I wonder if it was the moment of epiphany for him, that he gave himself up completely at that point. If so, then my answer to Shane's question would be that he might have deviated from the will of God before that point.

There are times, too, in the gospels when I feel like it is the human Jesus speaking. In the garden of Gesthemane, for example, when he asks "Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." And of course on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me".

Although a lot of people consider my view of Jesus to be blasphemous, I find that it gives me great hope. The things Jesus did and the way he acted are not impossible for us. The closer we align ourselves to God, the more we become like Jesus. I have often heard people dismiss some of Jesus' teachings as impossible for us to follow because we are only human. I do not believe that, and I know that the early Quakers did not believe that as well. George Fox spoke of us being restored to the state of Adam before he fell:
And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to Him, in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell

And that brings me back to the verse in Mark, and closer to William Barclay's view of Mark 10:18, which is that we shouldn't concentrate on "being good", we should concentrate on being in God. Out of that comes the good.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Don't call me good

I have been re-reading the Gospel According to Mark lately, and Mark 10:18 has been in my mind over this past weekend:

10:17 Now as Jesus was starting out on his way, someone ran up to him, fell on his knees, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.(From The NET Bible)

When I read that, it sounds like Jesus does not consider himself to be God. There is a note in the NET bible that seems to say that Jesus was suggesting that if only God is good, and the man considers Jesus to be good, then there is only one logical conclusion. I googled on this verse, and most of the pages I found seemed to express the same sentiment as the NET bible. I consulted a number of commentaries and study bibles, and most of them indicate that in Mark, Jesus is not equated with God, which is in obvious contrast to John (not to mention most of those sites on the Internet).

I think that this verse is a good one for revealing how we read the bible with our own preconceived notions. This verse could legitimately be taken at least two ways, and either way would be in harmony with other verses, and in conflict with some others. In the end, I think that we get so caught up in debating what the verse is supposed to mean that we miss the true message. To put it into Jesus' time period, I think that we become Pharisees.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Recognizing Jesus

I was at a banquet one time and saw a man who looked very familiar to me. After quite a bit of staring and pondering, I realized that he was a distant cousin. It took me so long to recognize him because I wasn't expecting to see him there. I think we all experience that odd sensation when we see someone we know in a different context and don't recognize them immediately.

I think that happens with God as well. There are certain times where we are expecting the presence of the Holy Spirit, such as at Meeting for Worship, and we are often more able to sense that presence. I think of some of the post-resurrection stories, such as the road to Emmaus, or Mary at the tomb, where the disciples failed to recognize Jesus because they weren't expecting him to be there. In our daily lives, we aren't always looking for God or expecting God to be there, so we may fail to recognize God's presence.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

A little practical mysticism

I read Frank Laubach's The Game With Minutes (PDF) this morning. It is a nice set of practices for remembering God at various points in your day, working towards the idea of praying without ceasing. The basic game is really just trying to remember God, or bring God to mind, at least minute of an hour. For an hour's time, you might score yourself to see in how many of those minutes you actually managed to remember God.

In addition to the basic game, Frank Laubach also provides other suggestions for remembering God. One struck a chord with me, which is that he says a little prayer for people when he is on a train or in a crowd. When I remember to, I try to hold other drivers in the Light briefly as I am driving. I find that it makes me a much calmer, more courteous driver, and I don't get as upset over other people's rudeness. I think that either praying for other people or holding them in the Light can be more helpful than the Jesus Prayer because it is more of an outreach to others. You are simultaneously practicing the two great commandments to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.

I was also trying to come up with ways to remember God while at work. I'm a computer programmer, and I have to do quite a lot of thinking. Today I tried to think of God when I hit the "Enter" key on my keyboard - as in "ENTER into God's presence" or "RETURN to God". I can't say that I remembered all that often, but I hope to do better.

Frank Laubach also wrote Letters By a Modern Mystic.

The PDF of "The Game With Minutes" is incomplete. This PDF includes The Game with Minutes among some other works and has the complete version.

Update #2 (11/14/2006)
Peter Schott has pointed out that The Power of the Holy Spirit (Volume III) contains a more complete copy of the Game With Minutes. Thanks, Peter!

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Google has just recently introduced a feature to help reduce the amount of spam in comments and I have activated it on this blog. If you post a comment now, you are presented with a word in a funky-looking font and you are asked to enter that word in the "Word Verification" box. This should help reduce the amount of spam on blogs while still allowing anonymous comments.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

If you're not part of the solution...

The old saying goes, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I prefer the geekier version: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate."

I was going back through some posts on other Quaker blogs and I came across this quote on beppeblog:
As a side note: I also feel that this blog has turned into a complaning place - my complaints about the Society.

I think it is natural to do a bit of complaining, especially because we have all noticed some glaring problems. It is better if a complaint is accompanied by a possible solution. The "War Is Not The Answer" signs are good, but why not propose an answer?

I have read a number of different complaints about liberal Quakers lately, but it seems like the biggest one is the lack of Spirit-centeredness. It also seems like a lot of meetings are aware of the problem but don't know what to do. You can't just say "we need to be more Spirit-centered in our work" and expect that to do the trick. I read an interesting passage by Rufus Jones describing the household of his childhood:

The word "mystical" was never spoken and of course had never been heard in our circle. It was implicit practice and not explicit theory that counted. I was immersed in a group mystical life from the very birth of consciousness and memory. Every day at breakfast we had a long period of family silent worship, during which all the older members of the group seemed to be plainly communing in joyous fellowship with a real Presence. The reality of it all was so great, and certainly of something more than just ourselves in the room was so clearly felt that we little folks were caught into the experience and carried along with the others. The mysterious high had its own awe and the rapt look on the older faces deepend the sense of awe and wonder. By the time I was four years old I had formed the habit of using corporate silence in a heightening and effective way. It brought with it, even for the child, a sense of Presence.
            From Rufus Jones: Essential Writings

The reason I included this passage is the quote "it was implicit practice and not explicit theory that counted". What is it about our practice today that is failing us and what can we do to improve it? I don't really have an answer to that question, but I would like to start with two observations:

  • The main thing that keeps coming to me right now is "time limits". From what I understand, Meeting for Worship used to end when the clerk discerned that it was time for it to end. These days, that "clerk" is usually a wristwatch.

  • If children are in meeting, it is often for only a short period of time. I don't know about other meetings, but in my meeting, I have noticed that there are very few messages in the 15 minutes that the children are with us.

I can understand that the time limit issue can be particularly difficult for Friends, but the voice inside of me keeps saying "is there something more important than God?" It's not that I am saying that longer worship is what we need, it's that we need to relinquish control of when the meeting ends. I wonder if maybe for starters, there might be once a month when the Meeting for Worship has no set time limit.

I know that many meetings have discussed the issue of children in Meeting for Worship, with varying results. Many people find the presence of children distracting, and children these days have a harder time sitting still in meeting. For large meetings, perhaps a special family-friendly Meeting for Worship might be a good idea -- something where the children are expected to stay, and to behave, but where Friends understand that it will take some patience. Rufus Jones said that even at the age of four he attended MfW for almost 2 hours every week. Of course, he didn't have TV, radio, CD players or video games to distract him, and his family had daily periods of silent worship.

Since I have been considering these kinds of issues for some time now and seem to have an interest in it, I am beginning to think I should join the Ministry & Worship committee. That might give me a better idea what is being done, what isn't being done, and what has been tried.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Mary & Martha

[Updated 8/14/2005 to add a link to beppeblog]

I was talking with my friend Shane earlier about Thomas Merton's book "Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century". I didn't have my copy handy, so I had gone to Amazon to use the "Search Inside" feature and send him an example saying. I came upon one that I really liked that refers to Mary and Martha of biblical fame. The story was a little long, so I tried googling to see if anyone could save me some typing, and one of the first entries was this sermon.

The sermon talks about Mary and Martha as a metaphor for our balance of inward activity and outward activity. Another way to look at it might be the balance between the Great Commandments - love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. If I had to rate myself on how balanced I am, I'd have to say that I come down more heavily on the Mary side. It feels overall, though, like Quakers (of the FGC variety, at least) tend to be more Martha-like (outward-facing, action-oriented). While it's not a bad thing to act, I feel like we have been neglecting our Mary/inward side. This post on Liz Oppenheimer's blog seems to show one example of that. I think I hear many more outward-oriented messages than inward.

The sermon mentions that without Martha, Mary will starve, and without Mary, Martha will burn herself out. In a previous post, I mentioned the Meeting for Worship for Peace that Red Cedar Friends Meeting has been doing. One of the things that motivated them to try this alternate form of meeting was that their Peace & Social Justice Committee was getting kind of burnt out. Once they started getting more in touch with their inward/Mary side via a more worship-oriented meeting, they felt renewed.

Thanks to LizOpp's catalogue of links I saw this post by Beppe about Mary & Martha.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Holding in the Light

We only had three people for Meeting for Worship for Healing on Monday, but I felt that it went very well. We had 6 requests. For one of them, towards the end I had this image in my head of Jesus holding his hand. I don't usually get images like that, or I am not very aware of them.

I spoke with my friend Richard on Monday night after MfWfH and we had a nice chat about both the healing and the peace meetings. He also hopes to see this kind of format used more often because he believes that it is closer to the manner of early Friends. Although I recognize that I am able to connect with God's spirit much more closely in MfWfH, I wonder if it is just me, or if the format of trying to hold people and situations in the light is beneficial for most/all Friends. One of the things Richard told me was that even though the Meeting for Worship for Peace has roughly the same format as the healing meeting, it developed, at his meeting, independently of MfWfH. That tells me that perhaps there are quite a few Friends who resonate with this format.

It occurred to me today that perhaps clearness committees could adapt this concept. Maybe some brief discussion of the situation up front, followed by a long period of holding the person or situation in the light (at which time I suspect there would usually be some vocal ministry), then some reflection afterwards. I suspect that the holding in the light gives you a focal point that you might be missing by just sitting in silence, you aren't as distracted and you are more intentional about being with the Divine. Perhaps this all comes more naturally to more seasoned Friends.

Monday, August 8, 2005

Stop the music!

You always hear people complain "I can't get that song out of my head". I have that problem, only it is fairly constant, and it isn't just one particular song. It's like I have this insane unstoppable jukebox. I can change the selection by just thinking for a second about a different song and then BAM! that song starts playing and won't quit until I change selections. I try to change genres, it doesn't help. I went from The Presidents of the United States of America (dang it! there they go in my head again!) to Verdi's Rigoletto in half a nanobleem.

The thing that bothers me about this constant soundtrack is that the times when I have felt closest to God, the soundtrack wasn't playing. So I am thinking that the soundtrack is drowning God out, or at least distracting me. I have stopped listening to music again hoping that maybe I can starve the jukebox to death, but it has a big, fat 40-year-old gut to work off first, so I don't think it will stop any time soon.

I had a funny thought occur to me this afternoon, though. Maybe the music is just God putting me on hold.

Sunday, August 7, 2005

Meeting for Worship for Healing

Tomorrow is our monthly Meeting for Worship for Healing at Atlanta Friends Meeting. This is something very near and dear to me because I feel most connected to the Holy Spirit when I am "holding someone in the light". Although "holding in the light" is often used as a Quaker euphemism for praying for someone, my friend Richard Lee has a much richer description which I will summarize by saying that you are fully connected with God and you take that essence of the person, that "child of God that's within them" and put them fully in the presence of God.

At the end of this message I will describe the process of Meeting for Worship for Healing as fully as I can in case it is something you wish to do at your meeting. Before that, though, I'd like to say that this meeting tends to lead to very deep worship. I have yet to be in a regular Meeting for Worship where I have felt inner peace and joy as deeply as I have felt after Meeting for Worship for Healing. Perhaps it is the focus, or perhaps it is just because I have a spiritual affinity for this kind of thing (being the son and grandson of nurses, that's not a huge surprise, I guess). There may be other reasons, as well. No one is talking about politics in MfWfH. If someone speaks, it is usually a deep insight for the person we are holding in the light. The whole process of holding someone in the light is a deep expression of love for that person. It is my hope that one day, this kind of meeting is a part of every Quaker meeting.

Along the same lines as MfWfH, there is a Meeting for Worship for Peace. Richard Lee described the process for me (hopefully he will write an article for Friends Journal about it, too), and it is basically the same process as MfWfH, but instead of holding someone in the light for healing, we hold people and situations in the light for peace. In the typical MfWfP, they try to hold people in the light who are doing specific peace work. That is, instead of trying to hold Iraq in the light, they hold in the light a person or a group of people who are doing peace work for/in Iraq. Immediately following this meeting, their Peace & Social Justice Committee decides on any actions that come out of the worship. What tends to happen, according to Richard, is that the things that come out of this deep worship are often very creative, and usually get more support than programs they had come up with before they implemented MfWfP. What I believe happens with MfWfP is that the people in the meeting do a better job at connecting with the Holy Spirit and listening to the divine guidance because they are not focused on having a planning meeting. Although we as Quakers are supposed to allow God to guide our work, it feels to me like we don't maintain as close a connection as we should during committee meetings. Maybe it's just me, I know I feel that way. MfWfP provides a way to focus on and listen to God for an extended period of time before any business gets done. I wonder if there are other areas where we could apply this same focus.

There are a few important guidelines to remember when holding Meeting for Worship for Healing. The first is, you don't pray at somebody, you don't pray for somebody that wouldn't want you praying for them in this way. For example, if you hold President Bush in the light (and I believe we all should), you aren't doing it to try to change him and make him do what you want him to, you just pray that God will help him and heal him from anything that is troubling him. In MfWfH, that might apply to one party in a divorce, or someone that needs to change some self-destructive behavior. If that person doesn't ask for healing, or it is likely that they wouldn't ask, we don't pray for them.

Second, we aren't praying for a specific resolution, we are just holding that person up to God and asking for God to heal the person or situation. If someone is dying, the end result might be for the person to die, we don't always know what is best, so we put our trust in God.

Third, sometimes people feel moved to lay their hands on the person being healed. I have a tendancy to do this. We make sure that anyone requesting healing is comfortable with this or not. If the person is not comfortable with it, we make sure everyone knows not to put hands on them. There are so many reasons why someone might feel uncomfortable with touchin and it is important that people not feel that pressured to accept touching, it can do more harm than good. Also, Friend Hildie Weiler told me that when she trained in England, they warned not to place hands on the top of the head. I don't know why, and I have to say that I have never felt moved to place my hands there, but I pass this information along.

The Meeting for Worship for Healing has a clerk, or a convener, who initially writes down the requests. We prefer that the person to be healed is present, but we also take requests for people who aren't there (assuming they would approve of our efforts). You should do no more than 8 requests (I have done 9 once, but it did get pretty long -- it can be an exhausting process, don't overdo). Once the clerk has a slate of requests, the group goes into silent worship for a period of time. When the clerk feels moved to do so, he or she reads off the one of the requests. The clerk discerns which request to present next, they are not necessarily in the order they were first taken down. It is also up to the clerk to discern how long to spend on each request. I find that we tend to spend more time when the person is actually present, and there also seems to be a pretty clear sense of when we are done. I think that so far, it has been rare to spend more than 10 minutes on someone. When we have gone through the slate of requests, the clerk asks for any other names to be held in the light, this is usually done at about the speed we do at the end of Meeting for Worship. When the meeting is over, we either shake or hold hands. Sometimes we all join hands and stand for a moment.

Richard Lee always recommends having refreshments handy for afterwards. The meeting can be pretty draining, especially with a full slate of requests. We haven't really gotten into that habit at Atlanta Friends Meeting yet, that's probably my fault.

A Watermelon Grows in Queens

When I was 4 years old my Mom and I lived with my grandparents in Jackson Heights, New York. I used to have this little spot in the back yard where I just liked to dig and dig. One day, I decided that it would be neat to grown my own watermelon, so with Grandma's help, I planted some watermelon seeds. I watered them every day and they actually sprouted. One day, Grandma took me out to the spot and there sat a nice big watermelon. I was so proud, I told people about it for years.

Okay, so I'm a little gullible. I was at least in my twenties, if not my thirties, before I found out that Grandma put that watermelon there. There was pretty much no chance that the scrawny little sprouts were ever going to produce a fruit. Although I may be a little disappointed that my thumb is not as green as I once thought, I think Grandma's little deception is a great example of how God loves us.

Grandma put that watermelon there because she loved me and wanted to see me happy. Not only was she not worried about a "thank you", she didn't want me to even know she did it. How much greater must God's love be for us!


I am a little dismayed today. I didn't feel like Meeting for Worship was particularly spiritual today. Then when I got home, I was looking through back issues of Friends Journal trying to find anything on Meeting for Worship for Peace, and I kept coming across disturbing statements like "many Friends have difficulty with the term 'prayer'" and I think the same article started to do a tap dance when it mentioned "cross". I feel like some Quakers are becoming afraid of God. I don't think it's the kind of fear of God that the Hebrew scriptures talk about, either.

We may have different words for God, we may understand God in different ways, but we need to be willing to let people talk about God the way they understand God. This may not always be the easiest thing for us to deal with, but the alternative is to water our speech down to some lowest common denominator. I don't know if this happens to other people as well, but there are certain expressions where I just feel a disconnect -- that is, I start to feel like we aren't talking about God. My personal disconnect happens when someone uses non-personal terms like "Nature".

Now, I consider it to be my problem that I have this disconnect. I feel I should strive to hear God's voice in those statements. I also understand that some Friends are "refugees" from some churches that display a less-than-Christ-like attitude to the world, and strongly Christian language can be a point of pain for those people. I'm not sure what the solution is for this problem. I don't feel that it is right to just say "suck it up" to someone experiencing that pain, but it is also not right to tell someone that they can't express their relationship with God through the eyes of their own beliefs. I hope that one day, with God's help, we will understand what to do.