LANGUAGE, UNITY & EMBRACING DIVERSITY

 As I sat in the airport waiting for a flight to the Los Angeles area, the woman sitting next to me set her computer in front of me with the live visual of people panicking at LAX, the main Los Angeles airport. A man had brought a gun into the airport and was shooting to kill the TSA agents. I happened to have been flying into Burbank, but this still hit close. That night I woke realizing how much of this violence I had been carrying with me all day. I was filled with tears. Tears of relief that I was not in the midst of it. Tears of sorrow for those killed and wounded. Tears of sorrow for the young man who knew no other way to respond than to pick up a gun.

 VIOLENCE AROUND US

 Such violence is around us and is too often the response that people turn to first. Certainly TV shows, movies and video games teach violence as a primary solution. The heroes (and heroines increasingly often) shoot with amazing accuracy and kill in the name of peace. We have all seen how reporters rush to scenes of mayhem.

 I only spent a short time in Israel and Palestine but was able to speak with people from various communities there who were agonized by the intense polarization. For so long the pattern has been one of aggressive responses – one group turns to suicide bombers. The response was massive concrete walls and security check points which tear apart the potential for community and made earning a living even more tenuous. I also walked the city of Hebron with a volunteer from Christian Peacemaker Teams – people who live in the conviction that there is an alternative – a place of paradox where they do not take sides except on behalf of compassion and justice. They put themselves quietly in the middle of the struggle in ways that prevent, or at least slow, escalation of harm and bitterness.

 My work in this process of learning to live in a place of paradox has been to engage with Evangelical Friends. As a Liberal Friend, I grew up with the firm conviction that Quakers had no pastors or organized worship services as well as an aversion to a lot of Christianity. I wanted to be separate from them, and often painted an unflattering picture of them. In other words, I bought into polarization. The process of learning to be open to the divine force in the world, and in “those other” Quakers was often slow and painful. Yet in that process of living into the paradox that we are both fully Quaker, I have been enriched, gained strong friendships and been opened to seeing more of God’s work in the world.

 A WITNESS TO NONVIOLENCE

 Several years ago I co-edited WALK WORTHY OF YOUR CALLING with an evangelical pastor. Jointly we made this statement as part of the conclusion to that book which brought together many Friends of all traditions.

 Our witness to the wider world is not served by our polarization, our squabbles and schisms. What is needful is a recognition that while we separately can be obedient to our individual calls, that together we can do so much more. Imposed unity is not required. Walking worthy of our calling, however, can bring integrity to our witness. Individual faithfulness produces personal integrity and conformity to Gospel Order, knitting together our personality, will and spirit, transforming and perfecting the human soul. Mega-obedience, the obedience of the wider group, brings integrity to our witness before the world. This larger listening, listening to God, and listening to that of God in each other brings about holy connectedness that we believe is very pleasing to God. Mega-obedience is called for by our world situation. Our world desperately needs Divinely useful means to address polarization, bad ethics and self-indulgence. No one is going to take Friends testimonies on peace-making, Gospel Order, and service very seriously, if we have no peace or order among ourselves. True obedience always produces tenderness and humility, it allows us to recognize that of God in the other – even those ‘other’ Quakers.

 Together, Peggy and I have done workshops and talks as part of our joint witness to a way of being in the world that is attentive to the Inward Guide rather than torn apart by the cultural pressure to label everyone and create the polarities that help underpin violence. We both name the cure for polarity as paradox.

Paradox and Polarity

 One morning I woke out of a dream. Where I was with Santa and Jesus on a sleigh, or a farm wagon, going down the road in the middle of flat Mid-West farm country.  We were having this intense conversation about Christianity and Christmas: who was right and who was wrong.  In the midst of this dispute, our wagon got stopped at a crossroads by a long, long line of tanks and other military vehicles roaring past at the slow roar of such things. 

 This dream, for me, has been a vivid illustration of how foolish our arguments are in the face of the violence and destructive power that is out there in the world blocking our path.  We are in this together despite our polarities which loom so large sometimes.

 In some of my writing I mention how I believe that Jesus embodies the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), yet I also believe, perhaps even more strongly, that Christians have no unique hold on Truth, the Way or the Life. Many others also embody this way.  The Way Truth and Life are freely available to all humanity no matter what their religious tradition.  This belief, which I hold (and which to some degree our spiritual ancestors held) is my response to the polarities among Friends although it sometimes rouses sharp disagreement.

 But perhaps I am not so far out there.  John Punshon, in Encounter with Silence stated “One of the greatest paradoxes of the kingdom is that all true faiths are one.” (P. 52) After telling how a Muslim woman taught him that the only possible response to God is to kneel, Punshon goes on to say, “I have come to know this God by immediate revelation, not by inspecting the evidence left behind in written records or by finding what clues there might be to God’s character in nature.  I am sure that reason and observation, ministry, preaching and scripture can point me towards God, but have not found them a substitute for direct experience. . .. . I was convinced of, and by, what Quakerism calls ‘Truth.’  The harmony of my experience and what I have been taught shows me the truth is Christ, so wherever I encounter truth, under whatever guise, there I find Christ waiting for me.  The Muslim woman spoke the truth and was thus a minister of Christ.” (p. 53)

 I agree with John Punshon in the basics of what he says – the paradox that all people and all true faiths are one — but I would say that all truth points to the same ineffable truth that we are to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God.  We call this truth by different names rather than seeing all as manifestations of Christianity.

Let me  define what I mean by paradox.  Paradoxes are two things which seem to be contradictory which but are in fact both true.

 Paradoxes are like Buddhist Koans  “ they break open preconceptions and take us back to the “beginner’s mind.”

 Paradoxes link us to Kairos time rather than chronos time to use the Greek words — that is, time related to the infinite mystery instead of human time.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is an explicit recognition immediately before the Liturgy begins that the liturgy is a moment when human time and eternity intersect, when it is stated that “it is time for God to act.”  Kairos time is not determined by our concepts of minutes hours, and seconds  it is the time when God acts.  I believe that Friends have the same attitude towards worship as the Eastern Orthodox “ it is the intersection of humanity with the eternal a moment when we purposefully pay attention to God acting in our lives.   The encounter with the divine mystery may also change our perceptions of time — as in those Sundays when I have sat in worship, where the hour seems but an instant but yet so full, that it is beyond comprehension. Friends are explicit that we are to seek to enter Kairos time, not just when we gather to worship, but as we interact with the world.

 So what are a few of the paradoxes that I see as part of the Quaker way? Here I am considering Friends worldwide and not just liberal Friends

 – Truth polarizes / Truth is unity

– Wait patently for God / Act with passion

– God is with us and God’s way is knowable / God is Mystery & unknowable-

– Speak with clarity and authority / speak with humility-

– Balance mercy and justice-

– See Christ as Truth / Know Christ as only one name for Truth and Love-

– Be obedient to divine calling / Act with holy boldness-

– Take personal responsibility / Live out the place of Grace

– Jesus is Lord / Jesus washes our feet

  Define a clear group identity as Friends / be radically inclusive

 To love life is to lose it/ to lose life is to gain it

  We are called to be both Broken and Tender – in the many meanings of

those words

 Paradox is part of the shift which happens in business meeting when we are stuck in apparent solid disagreement and someone recognizes (is given) a way to reframe the entire question so that unexpected answers are possible. Such answers clearly seem right to all present. A simple example is the time when my meeting, Multnomah Monthly Meeting, struggled to find a new building and kept finding the way blocked as we focused on options to either expand the current building or else buy a new, bigger one — setting up polarities as defining our options.  Then, one Sunday during business meeting Chris Cradler stood and spoke.  She had a clear opening that she was to facilitate a gathering of those who might start a new worship group.  She found others who were interested to gather and soon they started a new, second unprogrammed meeting in Portland.  Today, Bridge City Friends Meeting is a lively, thriving, independent meeting. 

 Being able to live in a world of paradox challenges us to step outside our patterns of linear thinking.  Having been trained in science, I am very conscious of how the science and technology that are so important in the modern world can push us into a mode of thought which demands “Right” answers and material proofs.  In fact, I loved being a scientist because it gave such clear answers (at the high school level) –I could always know whether I was right or wrong.  For me, an important factor I did not realize at the time was fear.  The certainty of science reassured me in my fears and gave me a place to stand.  It was only later I learned that science at its best, brings us into a place of paradox.  That literally, the Heizenberg “Uncertainty Principle” – scientific recognition that atoms are simultaneously both a particle and a wave – apparently two contradictory states — is essential to understanding the world.

 Resisting the Pressure to Polarize

 The constant pressure to polarize is worldwide. In being willing to accept paradox in our lives, rather than insisting that there is always a single right answer, I see our role as Friends to be catalysts – there don’t need to be a lot of us, we just have to be in the right places and reframing the questions — turning polarities into paradox.   It is not a question of oil v. alternative energy — all of us have to reshape our lives to use less energy.  Perhaps it is not the US v China, but the whole world facing the end to the luxurious dream of American wealth for all — and Friends can be witnesses to the reality that having “less” can lead to a rich, happy life and is not necessarily the way to poverty and violence.  Similarly, we are part of the Peacemaking Teams in Iraq and Palestine, living the Truth which is an alternative to the antagonism of Christian v. Muslim.

 Living easily with paradox confounds anyone who wants black and white answers.  It takes away our sense of absolutes — something which can be quite disconcerting.  I recall one day when I was in the midst of huge internal changes in my life.  I was sitting at my desk, writing in my journal and was feeling totally overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.  At that moment my stomach had this awful feeling — it was as though I had literally stepped off the edge of a cliff and I felt myself falling uncontrolled.  Then, in the next moment, I felt myself lifted on the breeze.  I was a hawk soaring free on the breath of God.  Somehow within me had been the trust and certainty that I could step off the cliff in front of me and I would be all right. 

 Living in awareness of paradox offers a way out of seemingly intractable conflict.  Certainly there are many conflicts in the world and the conflicts among Friends offer only a minuscule glimpse of the potential people have to dig in their heals and refuse to acknowledge the humanity and divinity in other people.  Intractable conflicts grow out of humanity’s infinite range of different values, different self-identities, different perceptions and many such factors. When we attack one another because of our differences it is easy to be trapped in conflict. 

 But Elise Boulding also warns us that there is such a thing as “premature universality” –that is the human tendency to want to solve conflicts by making everyone just like us, sharing our values, perceptions, and ways of doing things.  This is not the way to address the multitude of polarities which exist in the world or to end conflict at its core.  Rather than forcing others into a false mode which will only break down we must acknowledge the realities of our differences and at the same time, by being open to the unexpected ways in which all of us can be changed. This openness to be changed is also part of truly listening to one another.

 Mind the Gap

 If you have ever been in England and taken the Underground – the main public transport in London – you will have heard the regular announcement over loudspeakers to “Mind the Gap.”  It took me a while to figure out what they were talking about, but finally learned that it was about the uneven space that exists between the platform and the train where you step in the door. This space is sometimes minimal, but can be significant.

 This spring I happened to be at Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study Center in Birmingham when the clerk of London Yearly Meeting was also staying there. He was taking a week’s retreat as he prepared to clerk their annual sessions. It turns out that not long before this he had actually fallen into that gap in the Underground station. Fortunately someone saw him, alerted the conductor and the train did not move until he was safe.  Nonetheless, an unnerving situation to say the least.

 Today I have brought some reflections on where I find Unity among Friends. But I also want to keep in mind a caution to “Mind the Gap.” 

 There are serious areas of disagreement among Friends and I am quite sure that I do not want to see the two yearly meetings in the PNW unite any time in the near future. I suspect this is true for most of you in California as well. The gap between our yearly meetings is too large now. We might, like my friend Chris, end up on the tracks between the train and the platform if we do not pay attention to those gaps.

 In fact, I wonder to what degree we can affirm the points of Unity if we do not also acknowledge the gaps between Friends in our monthly and Quarterly Meetings as well as those larger ones worldwide.  I love to see the connections that exist in the world – I see so many commonalities between the Yoga Sutras and the teachings of Christ, between the Buddhist ethic and that of Friends. Yet at times I am reminded about how we can be facile about such things. When I attended a gathering of world Friends in England in 198_ there were a couple liberal Friends present who started talking about evangelizing and using other Christian terms in ways that were alien, and clearly at times offensive to the evangelical Friends present. Translation doesn’t always work. There are real differences we must respect.

 Our challenge is to go deep. To sink down to the Seed.  To patiently await the Guide and not run too freely ahead airing our own prejudices and misunderstandings. To hold one another truly in the Inward Light that shows us what is true and compassionate is part of our task. 

 We must acknowledge the realities of our differences, and at the same time, be open to unexpected ways in which all of us are changed. This openness to being changed is also at the core of truly listening to one another.

 ASKING DIFFERENT QUESTIONS:   

 What if we take time to ask questions that challenge, rather than are hostile or condemn.  For instance, not “Why do you have any pastors when you know that is not Quaker?”  to “How does being a pastor enhance the ministry of all?”  “How does being a Quaker change the role of pastor from what is taught in seminary?” “How does seminary training help those of us who engage in providing some of the tasks of the pastor as we work on Ministry & Counsel?”  When these are real questions, we can engage with each other from the heart.

 Rather than entering into conversation with an attitude that says: “how can you call yourself a Friend if …..” can we recognize : “how is my own arrogance (eg. assuming my way of being a Quaker is the only way) clouds my vision and prevents me from hearing the voice of the Spirit on this matter?” 

 The use of queries among Quakers constantly reminds us to take the stance of listening, listening for the voice of the Spirit. Listening to each other.  One dimension of this  is to make space for people to use authentic language.  This has become one of the big shifts in our unprogrammed meetings in this century, but many pastors I’ve spoken with tell me that there is great variety of belief within Friends’ Churches as well. 

 For the last half of the 20th century Friends tip-toed around each other trying not to offend, not to trigger strong reactions. There was a concern to  give space for people to find refuge from bad encounters with Christianity in particular. There has also been a  reluctance (at times out of fears, or simply from believing that it is essential to the peace testimony) to stir up any kind of strong reactions. Many Friends back off whenever someone becomes angry. So speaking clerly of what I believe as an individual has not happened regularly, perhaps due to fear, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the peace testimony. There is some truth in the role of the peace testimony here that we need to explore with new sensibility – where is the line between honest expression and bullying?  Where are we helping people by giving them refuge where they are not challenged and where can we be offering tools for gaining strength, knitting broken spiritual bones, expanding possibilities, building new foundations? 

 Finding a true peace, the peaceable kingdom, involves hard work and a lot of faith.  It requires listening, listening with God’s ears as well as our own that we might see our differences as well as the unity which exists in God. 

 * A continual process of learning

 * Respect for the other, and for ourselves

* Listening with our whole being and with awareness of the Eternal as a party to the conversation puts us in a position where we risk being changed ourselves even as  the person we are listening to is changed.   

* Being aware of and rooting out our own fears and prejudices — all that  which is not holly.

 *  Accepting that we may be attacked, verbally — perhaps in other ways when we are dealing with violence in the world — and know that the arms of unconditional love will hold us, we don’t need to attack in return. 

 One other way to think about paradox is as a bridge.  This is one place Friends have made a reputation — as international mediators who cross battle lines in order to open communications between enemies, as people willing to feed the enemy as well as our allies in times of war, as neighborhood mediators dealing with local disputes.   When we know the inner peace which allows us to stand in the tensions and be open to truth in unusual forms, we can listen freely without fear and not be defensive.  When we are not anchored to a certain outcome we are more willing to live with unresolved tension.  Tension is required if a bridge is to span a waterway, or a road, or two hostile groups of people.

 May we live in this space of creative tension.

 Is this place where we can we find Unity?  I would suggest that we can start a list of where we find Unity with the following:

 – Belief and Action are inexorably intertwined 

– We all seek to express compassion at the heart of all we do and say 

— We believe that the Spirit/God is available to all 

– We all share a common humanity and will inevitably disagree, bump up against each other and  hurt each other, even if inadvertently. We are called to find ways to reconcile and love one another despite these jarring encounters.

– Quaker spirituality is one of listening to the Inward Teacher, and to each other.

– Our worship and our business process are based on what some call “communal mysticism” – the knowledge that the Spirit can be encountered by each of us individually and by the community as a whole.

– The ability to discern what is of the Spirit rather than self is an essential Quaker practice – some call it – Taking up the Cross to the ego.  Others know this more in the way of what the Buddhists call “Self-emptying”

 – We are called to be in the world but not of it – to be engaged in the problems, sorrows and joys that surround us, but not to be caught up in the greed, materialism, power-seeking and other less desirable features of the human condition.

 There are more such specific  places of Unity we could name, but this is a start. I challenge each of you to name your own list. I see out unity in a way of being in the world with attention to the Inward Guide.

 PERCEPTIONS

 So what do Unity and Diversity look like in practice?

 We all know “popcorn meetings” are to be avoided. They are full of distractions and promote superficial messages be they political, purely personal, or even incomprehensible.  They are held up as blocking a deeper Unity.

 So I want to start with a story of a popcorn meeting.

 One Sunday, about 20 years ago, right after my father died, I went to worship at a Meeting I had never attended before. I only knew of one member and I was hoping she might be there, but didn’t try to contact her in advance. I just went and sat in the quiet in my grief.  Person after person stood and spoke.  There was not much silence. An old man stood and rambled on about something that bore all the earmarks of having been said many times. Someone gave a little story about stopping her car for ducks. You get the idea. My friend was present, saw me sitting there and was completely embarrassed that this was my introduction to a meeting she dearly loved – a classic popcorn meeting.

 Let me tell this story again. 

 A few days after my father died, I went to worship hoping a friend might be there. I went and sat in the quiet in my grief. I am one of those people who rarely cry and had not cried since Dad died. At that time, I was also someone who had never experienced anything resembling a mystical experience – I was the pragmatist who was good at organizing the property management committee and running registration for yearly meeting.

 As I sat in the silence, I was aware of an arm around me. The feeling was so strong I wondered if the stranger sitting next to me had sensed my grief and was comforting me, but there was no visible connection. Tears began to flow (no Kleenex either!) as I felt the comfort of this invisible arm supporting me and consoling me. Increasingly the words being spoken penetrated my grief.  Each person who spoke had something to say to me. Something about caring for even the least of those we encounter. Something about speaking of who I am and what is at the core of our faith. Even the old man spoke to me, offering reassurance that even when I stumbled and seemed foolish I was loved as part of the whole.

 Somewhere in the midst of the tumble of messages, someone sang beautifully “O Come, O Come Emanuel” one of the favorite hymns of my youth even though I did not consider myself Christian.  As I sat there with the tears flowing, I was totally embraced in love, a sense of absolute, unconditional, unending love that I could only name as “God present now” — Emmanuel.  This love brought with it a sense of blessing and deep joy in the midst of grief.

 My friend saw the grief, quietly embraced me at the end of Meeting and took me home with her. As we sat in a mix of silence and gentle conversation, what became clear to me was a calling for me to take up a vocal ministry. I had to learn to speak of this grace, this love, this wonder that is at the heart of worship and all we do. This calling took years to work out, and the process of discovering my voice and finding language was painful. This calling is what has brought me to this place. This long ago meeting for worship was where I encountered that which Unites us all if we will only pay attention to its gentle nudgings and occasional dramatic inbreakings.

 Both these stories are true.

 A few things I want to point out.

 First is very simple – that which we name (and dismiss) as a popcorn meeting might actually be transforming and life-giving to someone else, even if we never know about it. The same is true for so many dimensions of how we live. So the first lesson is about respect for ways that we might want to consider meaningless or negative.  The Quaker practice of listening asks us to go deeper and see how we might engage.

 The second is my awareness of how differently individuals connect with all that is holy. It may be through song, in the majesty of the world around us, in the sharp taste of injustice wherever it appears or in the awareness of compassion in unexpected places. However you recognize (or name) God, I hope you will cherish it.

 The third is another, longer story about language and how we name things, particularly the deep experiences which are in so many ways beyond all words.

 It was a couple years before I could really begin to talk about this experience, yet one of the first places I spoke of this was in a small group of women, half from my yearly meeting, North Pacific Yearly Meeting, and half from Northwest Yearly Meeting, the evangelical yearly meeting in the Pacific Northwest. We initially had been extremely tentative about sharing our faith with each other and definitely uncomfortable with each other’s language. Yet our times together had done much to stretch our tolerance of diversity.

 As I spoke, I named my experience a Mystical Opening that had essentially opened me to another dimension of the universe, a place beyond time and words. A place beyond all hatred, violence, self-service and greed.

 After talking about this further in this way, one of the evangelical women present really brightened up and almost jumped up in excitement – “You’ve had a conversion experience!” she almost shouted. 

 As far as she was concerned, I had a classic “come to Jesus” experience.  This took me aback then and I still don’t carry that language with me, but this friend often enjoyed teasing me about it. It still amazes me that I can stand in this place where both are true – that I have somehow known Jesus at the heart of my being, yet have also experienced the power, truth and love that are not dependent on any particular way of knowing God present in the world.

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2 Responses to LANGUAGE, UNITY & EMBRACING DIVERSITY

  1. Carole Brown says:

    Dear Marjorie,

    Walter and I are sorry that we missed your Carey Lecture this evening. But I stumbled onto this when I was searching for my third cousin, Chris Cradler, on the web.

    This is a very moving discussion and may be a good substitute for your presentation. Thanks for the opportunity to read your wise words about authentic experiences and most of all for getting to know you this week.

    Carole

    • quakeradmin says:

      Carole,

      Thanks so much to you and Walter for the ride. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.

      Fun to know you are Chris’ cousin. We’ve been friends for many years, although I don’t see her as much since she goes to the new meeting she helped form here in Portland. Are you related to her aunt, Margaret Gottlieb?

      You can reach me at marge_abbott@earthlink.net.

      in peace,
      Marge

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