Author Archives: charleybasham

About charleybasham

I am a member of Chena Ridge Friends Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. I am happy to share more information about my life if asked.

Commitment

From my window this morning I see the remaining yellow birch leaves looking weary, ready to fall. The cloud cover obscures what was just yesterday a brilliant scene, like a party when the music has stopped and everyone is tired and ready to go home. So today, rather than feeling the urge to go outside and play in the sunshine, I am drawn to write, for the first time in a long while.

What came to me yesterday in worship was a message about commitment. At a wedding I attended this weekend, the bride and many of the guests work together in the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition. Someone said, “It’s like we’re all getting married!” It struck me that our group is bound by both love and commitment, yes, sort of like being married. When a couple, or a band, or a social action group feels that sense of being drawn together by something greater than themselves, i.e., love, they can deal with winds of conflict or temporary lapses.

When I first encountered Quakers in Fairbanks (actually my first encounter with Quakers anywhere), I noticed how they loved each other, how they laughed and played in many different settings outside of the Meeting. Now that I have been deeply connected with this Meeting for almost 30 years, I still feel the bonds of love and commitment, and I think our light still shines in the community, but we don’t laugh and play together often enough. I want others to say, as pagans reportedly said about the early Christians, “See how they love one another!” (Tertullian, The Apology, ch. 39).

Commitment to a cause, to a person, or to a spiritual path, when freely chosen and frequently affirmed, can be joyful and fulfilling. So my question this morning is: Which of my many commitments are truly fulfilling and which am I doing from a sense of duty? Which can I let go, like the leaves falling from the trees?

 

 

 

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Respect

Last week I spent four days at a camp across the Tanana River with a group comprised mostly of Alaska Natives. We were gathered to envision ways to change the dominant narrative of our dependence on fossil fuels with its focus on profits and envision a new economy focused on people. We heard from Native elders about the wisdom of traditional Native ways as well as the damage that has been done to Native people by Western colonization.

Today I want to explore the meaning and implications of the word “respect,” which I heard often last week and which rose for me in worship yesterday. What I heard last week was the value of caring for the land, its creatures, and other people. I think the dominant culture in this country is at odds with this view of respect. We are taught as children to respect our parents and our teachers, which typically means to do what we are told, to obey authority. Respect, in this worldview is one way—upwards.

At its core, Quakerism is profoundly countercultural. Early Friends took to heart the belief that Spirit resides in each one of us and they refused to doff their hats or use the honorific “you” in interaction with authority figures. This may seem quaint to us today, but it was a big deal in 17th century England, and many Quakers were jailed for not showing proper respect.

Pamela Boyce Simms, in her plenary address to Friends General Conference earlier this month, asked how we rekindle the fire that led George Fox to defy current cultural norms and live in a new way, responding to the Spirit within rather than the authority figures. Are we willing to break away from our pervasive cultural patterns and live in right relationship with the earth and other people? My yoga class ends with saying “namaste, the divine light in me honors the divine light in you.” This, to me, is respect. It is relational, non-hierarchical.

Perhaps, because of the cultural baggage that comes with “respect” for many of us, we can substitute words like humility and compassion. These words are dominant in The Book of Joy, which features a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both men agreed that compassion and generosity were central features of lasting happiness.

Whether we call it “respect,” “compassion,” or “answering that of God,” it all comes down to how we view the world. I think we are being called to an awareness of how damaging our dominant cultural world view has been, especially to indigenous people, people of color, and to the earth. As we learned in the gathering last week, we all need to shake loose from the effects of colonization, whether we are descendants of colonizers or those colonized, and live into acceptance of our interdependence. In Quaker terms, I see it as finding our roots, sinking down to the seed sown in our hearts, and letting that guide us to “the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.” (Isaac Pennington, 1661)

 

Encounters

What might it mean to encounter the Divine? Is it different from experiencing the Divine? Maybe it is splitting hairs, but I’d like to explore the difference. I can experience a rainbow, the Grand Canyon, a symphony. I can see it, hear it, feel it. I can also experience the Divine in worship, when I feel carried along by a current flowing through the worshiping body. These experiences typically occur without agency, that is, without my willing them to occur, or intending them to occur.

There are many stories in the Bible of encounters: Jacob wrestling with the angel, Mary encountering the angel Gabriel and agreeing to spiritual conception, Jesus encountering the woman at the well. In each situation there is a sense of mutuality, of give and take, of choice. Is an encounter like a dance, where there is an invitation, an acceptance, and a mutuality of movement to the music?

This past week we celebrated both our 49th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of a couple of F/friends, so my thoughts turn to marriage encounters. I believe that an encounter, whether the mystical, once-in-a-lifetime variety or of the daily interaction with a partner, requires full participation and mindful presence. In Couple Enrichment workshops we learn ways of listening to each other with our full attention. This takes practice and commitment, just like learning to dance or play a musical instrument.

Stay Close to the Root

As I was sorting through a pile of old papers today, I found a note from a friend which included the quote, “Stay close to the root.” I’ve lost touch with the friend who sent it and forgotten the context that brought it up. But for some reason this early Quaker advice struck home for me today, and I am musing about its current relevance. Some years ago I was asked to speak about simplicity to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fairbanks. I believe I spoke about staying close to the root in making decisions about simplifying our lives, citing Fran Taber’s pamphlet, The Taproot of Simplicity. This was in the early days of environmental awareness when it was difficult for people to make changes in their lives that would reduce their carbon footprint (not that it’s any easier today; we just have more strategies available). My message was that we don’t need to go lopping off branches, i.e., deciding to change bits of behavior from the top down; we need to find the taproot deep within ourselves which will then give us strength and clarity to know what changes are needed and where we need to engage in outer action. That’s what I said then, and I still believe it, but I’ve strayed from its truth.

There is a certain irony in finding that quote in the midst of my mess, a mess that continues to haunt me: old academic papers, data from uncompleted research projects, samples of student writing, letters from family and friends, pictures, and lots of handouts from Quaker workshops. I’ve carried most of this stuff around for years, and while I know that most of it can be thrown away, I have to go through it, just in case there’s a gold nugget in there somewhere. I read each card and letter and think of the person who sent it. Then I decide whether to keep it or toss it.
It’s a laborious and time consuming process, but it is helping me figure out what is essential, or, if not essential, important to me for some reason. I know the rule about throwing something away if you haven’t looked at it for 10 years, and I know if I died tomorrow the whole lot would be hauled off without a look, but still, still, there are stories and connections with people who influenced my life. Some letters contain bits of truth that still speak to me; others I can offer a silent thanks to the sender and send along to recycling.

I’m also feeling stretched a bit thin right now, too many irons in the fire ( abashedly mixing metaphors). Each day I get notices to write my congress people or sign a petition or write a letter to the editor about an urgent matter. And everyone wants money for their cause ( Many of the papers I disposed of were funding appeals ). Some days I just want to walk out in the woods and breathe deeply, smelling the new growth, greeting each intrepid plant that has survived the winter here and is returning to grace my path. But this sorting work needs to be done and I have been dreading it and putting it off. I think I need to reframe the task as one of reviewing my life— treasuring certain moments, reliving the pain of others. It’s not so bad that way. And I got through a whole box today!

Defend the Sacred

“Seek and you shall find
Knock and the door will be opened
Ask and you shall be answered
When the love come tumblin’ down.”

This song rose for me in worship yesterday, and has continued to work me since. I am struck particularly by the action verbs: seek, knock and ask. Each of these actions implies an agent, someone doing something.

Until recently my spiritual life has been mostly passive, that is, I have received, I have been blessed, I have been been given gifts. I haven’t had to do much. Now, I am feeling a call to action that is stretching me in new ways. I’m not accustomed to knocking on doors or asking for things. One of these tests was serving on the Development Committee for the School of the Spirit. Asking people to donate money to a cause is not something I’m comfortable doing, but when it was presented as a spiritual practice I saw that work in a new light. It still wasn’t easy for me, but it was do-able.

Another example of of how I am being stretched, often beyond my comfort zone, is in the arena of social activism. I am learning to see these opportunities as spiritual practice. Last week, the Arctic Council, made up of nations bordering the Arctic, met in Fairbanks to sign an agreement and to pass the chairmanship from the U.S. to Finland. As a group of us prepared for actions, some of which could be seen as civil disobedience and could lead to arrest, I had to do an internal check to determine what was mine to do.

In a conversation with a friend yesterday concerning the rightness of participating in these activities, she pointed to the example of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. I agreed that that was one example, but I believe it’s the only one which involved any kind of violence. More typically, Jesus engaged in conversations with people: Nicodemus, the Pharisee, Matthew the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at the well. His form of protest against the Roman occupation was in creating alternate narratives. His entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey just as the Roman officers were approaching the gates dressed in their regalia and riding their fancy horses was a brilliant bit of political satire.

I have been following the actions taken by EQAT (Earth Quaker Action Team) in Philadelphia under the guidance of George Lakey. Their actions have included sitting in worship in the lobby of a PNC bank building in protest of the bank’s funding mountaintop removal, and walking 100 miles to visit communities served by PECO, the power company that serves the region, to argue for installation of solar arrays in low income neighborhoods. They have risked arrest but their actions have all been nonviolent. Not just nonviolent but spiritually grounded.

In a workshop that George Lakey led for us in Fairbanks back in November (just before the election), he pointed out that there are 4 main roles in any activist group: helpers, those who jump in and do things that need to be done for the group; advocates, those who can talk to people in power; organizers, those who figure out the plans and help carry them out; and the rebels, those who are willing to cause disruption and sit on blockades. Each role has a place, but if not understood and accepted there can be fragmentation of the group.

While the activist group that led the rally and other actions this past week is not Quaker, there is clearly a spiritual foundation to the work. The rallying theme was “Defend the Sacred,” i.e. the lands of indigenous people which are being threatened by increasing fossil fuel extraction. Prayers were offered at the beginning and the end of the rally. My role, as I see it now, is to accompany the Native folks who are organizing the protests, to assist as needed, to speak out in support (advocate role?) and to be a prayerful presence.

 

Earth Day

Having spent several months planning the local Earth Day Celebration, I was hit hard yesterday by an article that appeared in the New Republic: “Earth Day is Too White and Out of Touch with Reality,” by Emily Atkin. I had been feeling pretty good about our event on Saturday. We had lots of people come through. There was a “Walk for all Species,” with people, children mostly, either in costume or carrying a puppet, parading a short distance. There were workshops on composting, recycling, solar energy, and food sustainability. There was music, food, and, yes, face painting. At the Interfaith Climate Action table, people could make a prayer flag expressing their hopes for the earth. At other tables, children found the seeds in spruce cones and planted them, made dye from flowers, and made things from recycled cardboard. All this was fun and good, enjoyed by many people. But I hadn’t realized how white the crowd was. What were we missing?

Atkins cited Anthony Rogers-Wright, the organizing director at Environmental Action, who says “Earth Day is mainly a white person thing. . . While there are programs this Saturday for vulnerable communities, they’re just not getting an equitable level of transmission. And that’s been the story for many years in the environmental so-called movement. The nation’s leading environmental groups too often neglect environmental justice communities. Earth Day is a manifestation of that disconnect—an event that, like much of the environmental world, focuses too much on making white people feel good about recycling and driving Pruises (sic) than helping those suffering from environmental injustice.”

Besides this article, there were a few comments on Facebook noting that the March for Science on Saturday was also a largely white crowd. That doesn’t make it bad, just as the Earth Day Celebration wasn’t bad. The question in my mind is, how can we work to make our messaging more relevant and be more inclusive? For us in Alaska, I believe, that means being more intentional about climate justice. Yes, we all need to modify our lifestyles to reduce, recycle, and convert as much as possible to renewable energy. But we also need to be more conscious of the fact that people around the world, including coastal Alaska, are suffering disproportionately from the effects of climate change. They are losing their homes and their livelihoods. Their water is being poisoned by oil leaks and industrial action. Can we stand with the people of Flint, Michigan, who must drink bottled water because the water pipes are corroded? Can we stand with the Standing Rock Sioux people whose ancestral lands have been violated? Can we stand with the people of New Tok, Alaska, who are seeking funding to move their village further from the coast? Can we support the Gwich’in people who seek to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd?

Last year our Earth Day celebration included statements from many different faith communities (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and more). regarding their response to climate change. Most of them offered words similar to those of Pope Francis regarding our responsibility as stewards of the earth to care for the most vulnerable among us. This is the work I feel called to. I stayed with the group planning Earth Day this year even though the focus was on recycling rather than on this interfaith work. The article I read made me realize that while this year’s event was successful in many ways, it may have distracted me from the ongoing work for climate justice.

Unentitled

I recently had a conversation with a friend who claimed he didn’t believe in God. He said he believed in the human spirit, (or would that be Human Spirit?). We didn’t pursue it any further at the time, but this morning I woke up with a “And then I should have said” realization.

In what contexts do we find the term “human spirit?” In times where people have come together for good. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. The stories of how people helped each other through that horrific experience spoke to the triumph of the “human spirit” in times of crisis. I also saw the Broadway show, “Come From Away,” based on the stories of how people in Gander, Newfoundland, came together to care for the airline passengers stranded after the attacks on 9/11. Basic human goodness.

Do we ever use the term in relation to bad things? The men who planned and carried out the attacks were human. Do we speak of what they did as examples of the human spirit? Ah, yes. A fundamentalist Christian will tell you that the Adam/human spirit is fallen, sinful. And that’s why we need to be redeemed from our sinful selves. Without God, or specifically, Jesus, they say, we are doomed.
But I doubt if my friend would accept that argument. Nor do I, without some heavy translating.

So what I would say to my friend if I were to continue the conversation today, is that I believe that the essence of the Human Spirit is beyond our individuality. It is also beyond humankind and is in all living things. Humans are basically good because the universal spirit that undergirds us all is love. Bad things can happen when we ignore or reject that love. I can call that spirit “God,” or “Yahweh”, or “WHTVR.” I reject labels such as “theist,” “atheist,”or “non-theist.” My favorite one, if one is needed, is “panentheist,” or God in all things.

So, dear friend, wherever you are today, please know that I love you and would love to hear more about this God you don’t believe in. Perhaps we can both learn from that conversation.