Monthly Archives: November 2015

I’m covering my head in shame

Yesterday I chose to wear a scarf that was given to me by a Turkish friend. With its edges lovingly hand tatted by my friend’s grandmother, it was intended as a hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women. Although I did not wear it as a head covering (that did not feel right), it reminded me of the love and warmth I experienced living among Muslims in Turkey.

I wore it because I feel distress at the hate mongering I hear from politicians, which has ramped up since the attacks in Paris last week. I am appalled at the conflation of terrorist attacks with the requests for granting asylum to Syrian refugees. Worse yet, some politicians are calling for restrictions on American citizens who have chosen Islam as their spiritual path.

Today I am praying for peaceful solutions. I am sending love to my Muslim sisters and brothers. They need our support, not our scorn. Jesus has an honored place as a prophet in Islam. What would Jesus think of so-called Christians condemning followers of the Quran?  I am covering my head in shame.

 

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Nothing

Today, I have nothing to write about. It has been my experience over the past six weeks that over the course of the weekend, a word or idea rises— in discussion, worship, or reading, and when I sit down to write on Monday, a message comes together. This weekend I expended some of my writing energy by composing letters to the president and Alaska’s congress people, urging them to support action on climate change in Paris in a couple of weeks.

As I was walking the dog this morning, wrapped in my warmest clothes (it is 17 degrees below zero), enjoying the low slant of the sun reflected off the snow-laden trees, I pondered “nothing.” During my years in Japan I learned the value of MU, which can be translated as “nothingness,” an important concept in Buddhism. Like the empty spaces in traditional Chinese and Japanese art, there is value in emptiness. For me, this means clearing space within where I can experience the Divine.

I first encountered the term “via negativa” in my reading for the School of the Spirit’s On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program.   What I took away from that (so to speak) was a way of talking about my experience of God. In apophatic theology, most clearly articulated by the Celtic philosopher Duns Scotus Erigena (810-877), God is known only by what God is not. Karen Armstrong writes, “In Erigena’s paradoxical theology, God is both Everything and Nothing; the two terms balance one another and are held in a creative tension to suggest the mystery which our word “God” can only symbolize.” [1]

As I write this today I picture myself as a younger adult sitting outdoors with my Dad in Cottonwood, Arizona (a much warmer place!), trying to figure out what he meant when he said, “As soon as you say something is, it is not.” He was a Baptist minister who thrived on the works of Meister Eckhart (another mystic) among others. He loved mind-bending statements. “God is no thing. God is isness,” he would say. My mother had no patience for this kind of talk; she thought Dad was losing his grip. I loved arguing with him, honing my own perspectives as I challenged his. It was a kind of Talmudic exercise. I loved it that he could fully accept my embracing the Quaker way, recognizing George Fox’s message as an example of via negativa, a mystical approach. He understood the paradox inherent in any theology and the danger in thinking we know who or what God is. He often had a difficult time, as George Fox did, in trying to convey this understanding to other Christians.

Now here I am writing a blog about nothing. He would have loved it.

 

[1] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Random House, 1993).

Transforming Power

A word that continues to challenge me this morning is “transformation.” My grandsons, no doubt, would think of Transformers—the alien robots who can disguise themselves as various kinds of machines. I don’t think that’s what I mean. As a child, I memorized the Bible verse, “Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. “[1] I don’t think I knew what that meant.

Quakers speak of transformation in terms of “living a life rooted in the transforming experience of the Divine.” I can relate to that. Ben Pink Dandelion, in his book, Open for Transformation: the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, says, “We are challenged to consider how we retain an authentic encounter with the Divine, how we become a transformed and transforming community.”[2] Ah, yes, now we’re on to something.

Yesterday in our Quaker Meeting Bible study we explored the story of Elijah’s encounter with Yahweh on Mount Horeb.[3] Elijah, fleeing for his life, heads to the wilderness where, depressed and exhausted, he falls asleep. He is awakened by an angel, who offers him bread and water to sustain him on his journey. After 40 days and 40 nights he reaches a cave on Mount Horeb. He hears a voice asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord.” The Israelites, once again, have forsaken the covenant with God and have killed the prophets. Elijah feels that he is the only one left and now he is afraid for his life. As he stands in the cave, there is a great wind, but God was not in the wind. There is an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire there is a “still, small voice” asking him the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” After he gives the same answer, God tells him to return to his community. It is clear that he is not alone and that he still has work to do.

I’ve always heard this story as a cautionary tale to help us listen through the noise and drama of wind, earthquakes, and fire, to hear the still, small voice of the Divine. But what happens to Elijah when he does listen? How is he changed?

In a powerful message to the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, Noah Baker Merrill told this story of Elijah and then asked, “Friends, what does it take in our lives, when we’re running fast toward what seems like so much good work, for us to remember to stop and wait, to stay deeply connected to our Guide? Where have we gone beyond what God asks of us, and continued in our own striving and pride?”

So transformation is not something we DO, either to ourselves or to the world. Like Elijah, we may be zealous in working for change, but do we take time to listen for the still, small voice and allow ourselves to be transformed?
[1] Romans 12:2

[2] Published by Britain Yearly Meeting 2014.

[3] 1Kings 19:4-15

All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos

All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos Nov 2, 2015

As I pack away my jeweled bat earrings, my black wig, and my face paint for yet another year, I have been musing about the relationship between Halloween (originally Hallowed Evening), and All Saints Day/All Souls Day/ Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Not raised Catholic, I have never been clear about the meaning of the days after Halloween. I guess I’ve always known that it had something to do with death, but not knowing much about the Catholic saints and martyrs, I didn’t know why they were being celebrated on Nov 1. From living in the Philippines for two years I learned a little more about All Souls Day, a day for visiting, cleaning, and decorating the graves of ancestors and praying for them.

I remember a conversation many years ago with friends in the steam bath about how we deal with death—in particular, how we handle the bodies of departed loved ones. At the time, all but one of us had never experienced death close up. A Yup’ik friend was amazed at this, as in her culture the job of preparing the body is tended by family members, not relegated to professional undertakers. This led me to consider how our culture encourages us to avoid death. And while we are allowed to cry at funerals or memorial services, we are expected to get quickly past our grief and move on with our lives.   What would it be like if we had an annual celebration of the lives of those who have left us? To fill this gap in white culture, some are turning to Dia de Los Muertos.

This attraction is understandable, writes Aya de Leon in a Facebook posting today. She says, “This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living our departed loved ones that is deeply missing in Western culture.” However, her message to Gringos is: “You want our culture but you don’t want us—Stop colonizing the Day of the Dead.”   She points out that all people are welcome at Dia de los Muertos celebrations organized by Latino communities in many U.S. cities. She also points out that there are indigenous European cultural traditions commemorating the dead (dating from before these traditions were themselves appropriated by the Catholic Church). Her complaint is that white people are appropriating Day of the Dead customs without regard for the Latino communities in which the customs are authentically rooted.

While Quakers historically did not celebrate holidays at all, believing that all days were equally sacred and holy, we do have a longstanding tradition of memorial meetings, where we sit in quiet worship and bring up names of those who have departed. This is a far cry from the colorful celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos with the flowers, decorated altars, and dancing skeletons, but it does provide a time for collectively remembering those whose lives impacted us in important ways.