Category Archives: discernment

“Meet Others on Equal Ground”: A Slogan Post

I started my day by reviewing comments I’d made on a facebook friend’s post to see if I’d been contributing to anti-blackness (anti-blackness is a more nuanced term for prejudice against people with dark skin; this term includes concepts of racism and colorism). The discussion was a challenging one; this friend was calling out white Jewish people who attempt to deny their prejudice against black people by saying they’re not white, they’re Jewish. This friend is black and had been hurt by pale-skinned Jewish people in the past.

This kind of conversation has many layers of prejudice that can be in play at any time. As someone involved in “social justice work”, when I come to a conversation, how do I “meet others on equal ground”?

To me, this means I need to be aware of the privileges I bring to any interaction and try to limit the effects of those privileges. 

My ethnicity is half Armenian and half European, but I have white privilege, which is why I’ve started openly identifying as white online. My dad’s family’s culture may not always be white American, but in interactions with the public, in general, I am given the benefit of white privilege. So, in conversations with black people, I try to “check” my white privilege. What does this mean? What does “checking your privilege” mean? It means that I do my best to make sure I’m not coming from a place of assumed superiority in interactions. It means I’m willing to listen and let them lead the conversation. It means, in short, doing what I can to reduce the effects of my privilege for this conversation by not claiming the power white people generally have in interactions with black people. It means doing my best to meet them on equal ground while being aware that society has done its best to prevent that ground from being equal. 

That’s one example. Another privilege I have is neurotypical privilege. This is something I am still learning about. But in interactions with autistic people, I try to give them the space to control the interaction. Or at least accept that my perception of a social interaction may be vastly different than theirs, and that theirs is no less valid than mine.

This leads me to another aspect of meeting others on equal ground: the acceptance of their truth as real, even if their truth is completely different than my own experiences. On another blog, I wrote about how disabled people are often questioned and doubted about the validity of our experiences as disabled people. About how “I believe you” can be life-changing for us to hear, because we exist in a constant challenge to prove our health conditions are real (particularly those of us with conditions that primarily affect women, such as fibromyalgia). 

This need for lived experiences to be believed is not unique to disabled people, however; as this article shows, black people also are routinely doubted and questioned when they share their lived experiences of racism. I believe that any marginalized/oppressed group will have similar experiences; that when a marginalized group tries to explain how their marginalization affects their lives, that people who aren’t part of the group, who have no experiences that match those, will tend to express skepticism.

This is also a way of the non-oppressed group to exert its control. “Oh, racism is over, thus we white people don’t need to change anything or do anything differently because you black people are just exaggerating.” “Oh, your pain can’t be that bad. I’d kill myself if I had to live your life.” “There are gay couples in TV and movies now; what do you mean representation is still a problem?” “Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, so clearly transgender people are now accepted by society.”

Etc. Denying the experiences of an oppressed group can be a method of abuse called gas-lighting

We need to listen. We need to be sure we’re not contributing to oppression in our interactions with people who are oppressed (and oppressed people, we are not blameless here; just because we’re oppressed in one way doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the oppression of other groups). “Meeting others on equal ground” may not always be possible. We may have internalized prejudices, or they may (yup, oppressed people often end up believing the stereotypes about their group; disabled people can have internal ableism, etc.). We may not be able to fully equalize the ground we’re meeting on; in fact, chances are, in a meeting between an oppressed person and a member of the oppressing group, we won’t be able to reduce the effects of our privilege enough to have it be a fully equal conversation.

But the first step has to be listening. It has to be believing the “other”, whoever that “other” may be, when they tell us about their life experiences that are different than ours. (For example, if a black person is telling a white person about a negative interaction they’ve had with police, that the white person’s positive interactions with the police does not negate the black person’s experiences or mean that they are seeing racism where there isn’t any. It means that they, as a black person, have had a difference experience than the white person has. That experience is no less valid just because that person is black while we are white.)

We need to accept that being aware of differences is not the same thing as being prejudiced. Because those differences matter, and the differences are not what’s bad–it’s the discrimination and oppression that is. And if we aren’t aware of this, we may never have the opportunity to meet someone from a different social group on truly equal ground.

“Meet others on equal ground”. When the ground that society has laid out isn’t equal, how do our interactions support or lessen this inequality? In what ways do we deny the truth of others different than us? In what ways are we supporting and empowering others? In what ways are we failing?

As a Quaker and a Buddhist, today’s slogan is a challenge, and one I know I need to keep working on. 

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“I Can’t Go Back”

(Trigger warning: trans- and homophobia.)

Since that first Sunday after the Charleston Emanuel AME attack, I have attended my local AME church three times. (You can read about my leading to attend here.) My second visit was even more powerful than my first; I visited alone and felt more free to participate in worship. I loved the overwhelming sense of God I felt there and the consistent message from the pulpit to love yourself, but be and do better.

I, quite frankly, began to love that church. I loved the worship. I loved the music. I loved the freedom to give yourself up to God without fear or embarrassment. I loved that there was dancing–in church! I loved the fellowship I felt with people who are quite literally my neighbors. I loved that the services inspired me to rekindle my relationship with Jesus and reminded me of what I found appealing in him in the first place. I loved the energy and the sense of constant praise and wonder at God. I found myself looking forward to the next time I could attend church.

Yesterday was my third time visiting. I felt comfortable with the service now. I could sing along with most of the call-and-response songs. I stood up and swayed to the music. I waved my hands. I was there, and God was there, too. It was a divine celebration of all life had to offer and all we had to be grateful for. When the time came for visitors to stand and introduce themselves, I stood for a second time. The Sister who oversees services saw me standing and said, “Hey, you a regular now.” I felt honored to be so welcomed. But I introduced myself anyway and said, “I know, this is my third time, but I was so nervous the first time I attended I forgot to say my name. It’s [name] and I live over on [street a mile away]. I’m a Quaker, but my Meeting is in Easton, and you all know how beach traffic can be on a Sunday…” Everyone laughed. “So, my hope is to be here when I can’t be there, because I love being here with you all.” Everyone smiled at me, and I felt welcomed. I felt open. I felt safe.

Later in the service, a guest preacher rose to give the sermon. She–and I was so happy to see a female Reverend!–was the sister-in-law of the reverend. The theme of the service so far had been transformation–the title of this post is from one of the songs we sung, “I Can’t Go Back”; and during that song, I was thinking about how I can’t go back to closing my eyes about the truth of racial inequality. I thought about writing a blog post about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and replacing their names with Jesus’s. I thought about how happy I was to be Woke and how much joy it has brought me (pain as well, but the joy had been a surprise, and a lot of that joy came from my attending this church).

And then the guest preacher said (obviously this is not verbatim, as I am relying on my memory here), “God made you who you are, and you have to accept that.”

I nodded, but began to feel on edge. Where was she going with this?

“God made you who you are, and there’s no changing that.”

I felt myself tense.

“Do I need to spell it out for ya? God made man and he made woman, and what he made you, there’s no changing that. You can’t lie with another man as you would a woman. You can’t lie with another woman as you would a man. Accept who you are.”

And I felt my soul turn cold. I felt like God had left the building. I was shocked. I looked around me, hoping to see other parishioners with the same shocked expression on their face. But everyone was applauding or voicing their approval of her words.

I wanted to flee. I wanted out of there. But there was a woman sitting next to me, and I couldn’t leave without causing a scene.

I tried to let go of the painful words and focus on the rest of her sermon. She spoke about “dropping your baggage”. She spoke about “loving who you are, accepting who you are” and “not judging other people because you don’t like the way they dress or look”. She spoke about how we can all be ministers, that there’s nothing special about her that makes her more able to be a minister than the rest of us. She spoke about how none of us is perfect and we all make mistakes. She spoke about the danger of gossip. But most of her sermon was about loving and accepting who God made you to be.

The thing is, God made me bisexual. God made me agender. And neither of those is an affliction I need to be saved from. They are part of who I am. They are part of who God has made and called me to be.


I was trapped in that church for an hour more before I could sneak out and leave. I tried to find the joy I had felt just moments ago, but it was not there. God wasn’t there anymore for me. When the parishioners were called to the altar to proclaim their faith, I stayed in my pew and began to cry.

The truth is, I loved this church. I loved worshiping with them so much. But now I know that I can’t go back.

On the short ride home, my husband immediately noticed something was wrong. Normally, I am exuberant after these church services; I’m excited to tell him how it affected me. This time, I was silent for a few moments; and when I began to speak, I started to sob.

I wouldn’t stop sobbing for more than an hour. I could not–and still cannot–understand how someone can preach a message of loving and accepting who you are and at the same time, tell me that part of who I am is an affliction that needs to be healed by God.

“Hate the sin, love the sinner” makes no sense when you become aware that being LGBTQ isn’t an activity one participates in, but a part of who a person IS. A person isn’t gay only when they’re in a same-sex relationship; they are gay if they’re attracted to members of the same sex (and not attracted to members of the opposite sex). And attraction is not a choice. (When did you choose to be straight? is a question no one can honestly answer.)

What people who are LGBTQ hear when you say “hate the sin, love the sinner” is that your love and acceptance of them is conditional and depends on them denying an essential part of who they are… Which isn’t love at all.

And so, as much as I loved worshiping with this church community, as much as I want to go back, I know that “I won’t go back, can’t go back, to the way it used to be”.

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Fellowship

I remember watching in horror as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfolded. As adults and children were trapped inside that Superdome for days. People waving from the rooftops for help. Which did not come. I watched. I could do nothing else.

I watched as Trayvon Martin’s killer was deemed “not guilty”. I began to speak on facebook and with friends and family. I began to see the hard work of racial justice, as some friends reacted negatively to my posts and took to George Zimmerman’s defense. I began to read books like “The New Jim Crow” to educate myself on modern institutional racism, and I helped organize a discussion about “The New Jim Crow” at my Meeting. But mostly, I just watched.

I watched Eric Garner die on camera. “I can’t breathe”. I shared the video of his death and was immediately met with backlash from friends. “We don’t know the facts.” “Why are you so anti-cop?” I ended up deleting the video. I wasn’t ready yet. I was only ready to watch.

I watched as the story of Michael Brown’s final moments emerged. He had his hands up. He was unarmed. But no, he had a record! The cops said he was charging them! 

I watched as Black Lives Matter rose to prominence. And I began, slowly, to speak. To speak not in spite of those who disagreed with my posts, but because of them. I joined several facebook anti-racism groups and found the support I needed to keep speaking.

But I did not do anything but speak, read, and watch. I did not attend any rallies, though I wanted to. I had good reason to stay home: I’m disabled and have a weakened immune system, making being around large crowds potentially dangerous to my health… and, last fall, I was also recovering from ankle replacement surgery

I watched as Freddie Gray died from a “rough ride”. I watched as Baltimore, the city I go to for my joint surgeries, protested.  But I stayed home.

Then, last Thursday morning, I woke. I lay in bed reading the news about the Charleston white terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church. The 9 people who were slaughtered after spending an hour with the killer talking about the Bible. The 5 year old girl who survived by playing dead. I couldn’t stop crying.

Watching was no longer enough. When I pulled myself out of bed and left my house that day, I drove past 4 black people and saw each of them: 2 teenage boys riding their bikes down my street, 1 black man riding his bike and looking at his phone at the same time a couple of miles from my house, and 1 older black man staring at his phone in shock, standing at the side of the road. Seeing them made me tear up again, and I struggled to stay calm enough to drive safely. I wanted to let them know that I saw them and was so sorry about what had happened. But while driving is not the time to reach out to people.

I live in a town that is 70% white and 20% black and still mostly segregated, the way most American communities are. When my husband and I were looking to purchase our first house 10 years ago, I made a point of finding a street that was not all-white, and that was harder than it should have been. My neighborhood is probably about half black; and one of my neighbors is a widowed black woman, who is surrounded on all other sides by houses owned by family members. I felt a great need to reach out to the black people who live in my town. And I also felt a great need to worship this Sunday, instead of staying home and resting; but I knew that if I attended my Quaker Meeting, my thoughts would be with Charleston’s Emanuel AME church. I wondered if there was an AME church near my home, and a quick Google search revealed one not 2 miles from my house. 

I gave myself up to discernment, trying to find what I was led to do. I did not want to intrude upon a community in their time of mourning. I did not want to make the parishioners feel fear in their house of worship. 

But the leading did not go away. So, Sunday morning, I left home to attend worship at my local AME church, accompanied by my husband. My intention in going was to show solidarity with them and to worship with them.

We arrived early, and the front doors of the church were locked. A black woman arrived and asked us if we were there for the service. She was warm, friendly, and inviting. We said we were, and she showed us the side door that was unlocked and explained that there was praise before the service started and that the youth group was leading this service.

We walked into the small church, two white people left alone in their sanctuary. We did not want to make a spectacle of ourselves by sitting in the front pews, but we were also aware that we didn’t want to appear we were hiding in the back, either. So we sat in the center pews, visible and vulnerable. The church was small and sparsely-decorated, but not bare like Quaker Meetinghouses tend to be or overly-lavish like the Catholic churches I attended growing up. Nearly empty, I felt like the church was waiting for its people to fill it and give it purpose.

We were alone for a good 20 minutes before the congregation began to filter in. Now I owe you readers an apology, because there is no way for me to accurately describe the worship we participated in.

There were several aspects of the service that surprised me. First, it was women-led. The Reverend was a black man, but his primary participation in the service was to deliver the sermon… which occurred more than 2 hours into the service. Three black women seemed to lead the service, and I truly appreciated the ministry they gave, both in their words and in their actions. One of the three was the woman who had greeted us so warmly when we were searching for a way inside the church earlier. Second, the music was… all-encompassing, yet not a distraction from worship, but a manifestation of it.

The longer the service went on, the more comfortable I felt. After the first of three hours, I began to feel a fellowship with the other worshipers and the kind of deep centering I’ve only felt before at Meeting for Worship. Like Meeting for Worship, the service felt Spirit-led: it was fluid and unpredictable, and there was space for the congregation to participate as they felt led.

There was some grief, but mostly joy. The sermon was about the first 10 verses of the 2nd chapter of Job, which I’ve read more than once, but the sermon the Reverend gave made me consider it in a whole new way. I was raised Catholic, and the overwhelming lesson I learned from Mass and CCD was that God and Jesus loved you, and that made them worthy of worship and praise because you were a sinner and not worthy of their love. This sermon instead asked us to take the place of Job, who is described as perfect and upright. It was about keeping faith, no matter what happened. It was about the pride, joy, and determination involved in doing so. It was about gratitude to God for waking up this morning, for being able to attend this service. It was about not knowing what could happen, who could walk in the church doors, but worshiping God all the same.

I am really not doing this service justice at all. It was communion—with God and with each other. It was authentic and seemed to allow each person there to be both true to and proud of themselves while at the same time encouraging them to be better than they were.

At some point during the service, I realized that fellowship with these people—true fellowship—could not happen during just one service. I need to return, if the congregation is comfortable with me doing so. I felt blessed to be there and grateful they welcomed me in.

It has been two days now since my attendance at the local AME church, and I am still… encompassed by it. I am still thinking about it. I am, surprisingly, missing it. I am eager to go back. While I have no intention of joining their church, I am hoping to become a regular visitor.

And next Sunday, I hope to attend Meeting for Worship and bask in that same “infinite ocean of light and love” through silence and vocal ministry instead of through the music and sound of last Sunday.

[EDIT: This post has also been published on Friends Journal.org and in the September 2015 print edition of Friends Journal.]

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Bi-religious Duality

There’s often an underlying tension when one professes to be a member of two religions. There’s the constant challenge of “Well, how can you be both X and Y?” And often one avoids answering the question by either outright ignoring it or starting a long convoluted explanation about how even though these two religions seem to have differences, they’re really not all that different when all is said and done.

Except sure they are, or you wouldn’t find it necessary to be part of both. You would be satisfied with one religion and wouldn’t feel the need to have two.

I am both Quaker and Buddhist. These two religions do have some similar beliefs—Quaker’s “that of God” is comparable to Buddhism’s bodhichitta or the idea that anyone can find enlightenment, not just monks—and some similar practices—when I sit in Meeting for Worship or for meditation, physically I am doing the same thing—but Quakerism is not Buddhism and Buddhism is not Quakerism. Nor should they be!

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most important theological differences I find between Buddhism and Quakerism. Now given the wide diversity of beliefs in both Buddhism and Quakerism, this post is going to involve lots of generalities and is just my understanding of what are the foundations of both religions, regardless of whether all Buddhists and all Quakers currently believe in these foundations or not.

This foundational difference is the concept of God. In Buddhism, there is no God, at least not in the personal, creative (as in, creator of the Universe) sense. The universe and all its inhabitants are, ultimately, ruled by karma, the law of cause and effect. In this sense, Buddhism is very scientific: because this happened, this then came to be, and so on. Pema Chödröm has this to say about the belief in a personal God, the kind of God who actually cares about you as an individual and interacts in the world:

“The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us… Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”

Quakerism, on the other hand, has a foundational belief in the existence of a personal God. We sit in Meeting for Worship waiting to be Moved by Him (or Her or It or Whatever), and if we are so Moved, we stand and share the message. We believe that one can be Led. We have clearness committees to test Leadings. Now whether all Quakers today would agree that a personal God exists, we clearly believe that there is Something that has the ability to lead us. We believe in Something that can call us to an action or an inaction. We believe all can have a personal relationship with this Something without the need of a priest or outward sacraments.

Now whether Quakers today would name this Something God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, Allah, Nature, or Our Inner Goodness, this belief is not one that is found—as far as I know—within Buddhism.

The belief that I can be led—personally—by the Something seems at odds with the Buddhist belief in karma. How does a Something that can interact with me personally fit in with the Buddhist understanding of the universe as a mechanism of karma? How does that work?

It doesn’t seem to work, to be honest. Buddhist and Quaker dogma aren’t the same. They are inherently different. They come from different foundations: Quakerism is founded upon the idea of a Creator God, specifically the God of Jesus, that is accessible to all people; while Buddhism is founded upon the idea that anyone, despite current caste and past karma, can become enlightened and free from this world of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. Quakerism in a sense encourages the individual—one has a personal relationship with God, one can be led—while Buddhism discourages the individual—the idea of a Self is ultimately a delusion. And if that is true, then how can something that doesn’t truly exist be led?

Wow, I am really over-simplifying and generalizing, aren’t I?

But what it comes down to is that practicing Quakerism and practicing Buddhism works for me—experimentally—as George Fox would say. The Buddhist practice of meditation—the maitri/metta I talked about in my last post; the mindfulness of breathing, of pain, of sound, of Being—works for me. The Quaker practice of waiting upon the Light works for me. How can I deny that I have been Led? Can I look back upon the ministry I’ve given in Meetings for Worship and dismiss the heart-pounding, body trembling that inspired me to stand and speak?

And yet, I can’t deny that there are serious differences between the two religions, and that these differences in some cases seem to be contradictory.

And so I am forced to stand in the Center, between what seems to be two choices, and wait in the tension.

Because what it comes down is that I believe more in experience than in notions. And that is something that both Buddha and George Fox would agree with.

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Practice

Choosing to stop attending the Bible listening/study group with my friend was one of the harder choices I’ve had to make recently. I miss having the opportunity to see her, but I don’t miss the group as much as I thought I would. The truth is that I never really felt like it was where I was supposed to be. And as Easter approached, I began to feel more uncomfortable with the idea of continuing to attend.

For Christians, Easter is supposed to be a celebration. “Jesus is Risen!” For me, Easter has become a time of discomfort. It was at an Easter service several years ago that I was finally able to name that discomfort: that I don’t believe in the Resurrection or Jesus’s divinity. It was that Easter service that made me realize I wasn’t yet in the right spiritual home, that as awesome as the Episcopal religion is, it wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Shortly after is when I (re)discovered Quakerism and knew this was where God had led me.

The truth is that attending that Bible listening/study group made me acutely aware of how distant I often feel from my Meeting. Since my Meeting is half an hour away, it’s all I can do to attend Meeting for Worship once or twice a month and the occasional library committee meeting. Being more involved with my Meeting, such as joining a discussion group, is not a possibility. And I miss my Meeting. I wish I could be more involved.

Another truth that surfaced after I realized I was no longer led to attend that group is that I need to be more faithful to my religions: both to Quakerism, and to Buddhism. I’d let my daily formal meditation fall to the wayside, with the excuse that since I was constantly trying to practice mindfulness, the formal sitting meditation “wasn’t necessary”. But I realized that I missed my meditation practice. So, I’ve started practicing sitting meditation again, and it has been good.

Tomorrow, I will be attending Meeting for Worship and then Meeting for Business. And I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know yet how to reconcile my longing to attend more Meetings for Worship with my physical inability to do so, but I’m hoping way will open. And in the meantime, on Sundays when I’m unable to attend Meeting for Worship, I’ll practice Centering Prayer meditation. It won’t be the same, but it’s better than nothing.

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Moving On…

I just sent the following email to the leader of the Bible listening/study group I wrote about in in this post:

I’ve had a growing sense of discomfort about attending the Bible listening group on Tuesdays for a few weeks now. It’s finally crystallized to the point where I can voice the source of that discomfort.

I’m not a Christian.

At least, not in the sense that you all are. I don’t believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, Jesus’s divinity, or his bodily resurrection… and I don’t believe this is a failing that needs to be fixed. I do believe in his teachings and do my best to follow them, but the most I could say is that I’m ethically Christian, but not religiously.

I feel that not only would it be dishonest for me to continue attending, but I worry it could also be harmful to the group. I worry that honestly expressing my faith could make others in the group uncomfortable about expressing theirs. And I don’t want that, not at all.

I really respect you all and what the group does. I’ve enjoyed the fellowship and getting to know all of you. And I’ve especially enjoyed the opportunity to see [friend] every week and am hesitant to give that up; however, I feel that my leading to attend the group has ended.

I wish you all well and will continue praying for each of you every night. Please feel free to share this email with the group.

Leadings are strange sometimes. You think you know where they’re going to take you, and you end up somewhere completely different. I’ve been struggling with the “Am I a Christian?” question for a number of years now. I keep coming up with answers, but the question keeps returning. I won’t promise that this is the last time I’ll post on here about this question, but the sense of… relief I have now, after sending that email, is palpable. The weight has been removed from my shoulders.

I can move on now. To what, I don’t know. I will wait until that weight returns, that sense of urgency… that sense of being led returns. And then, I will follow that leading as best as I can and try to remember that only God knows why.

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The Return

It’s funny: I’ve had this blog title floating around in my head for months now. I thought the title was going to be referring to my return to Meeting for Worship after my hip surgery.

It’s not, though: it’s about my return to Jesus.

Five years ago, I began an annual tradition of reading the New Testament, starting on Christmas and finishing by the end of Lent. Two years ago, after I finished my annual reading, I felt that I was being called to take a break. I didn’t seem to get anything from that reading—I’d become too familiar with the text and had read it too frequently. So, last year come Christmas, I didn’t start reading the New Testament. Actually, I don’t think I’d even picked up my favorite translation (Richmond Lattimore’s) for over a year.

Today I had lunch with a dear friend of mine—I’ll call her R—who I hadn’t really gotten to visit with for several months. During lunch, she mentioned this worship meeting she attends every Tuesday night. She’d mentioned this a few times before. They read a section of the Bible, talk about the word or phrase that pops out at them, and then pray together. It sounded a lot like a modified lectio divina group.

Coincidentally, I just finished a book called “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” a few weeks ago that spoke about lectio devina, as well as centering prayer. (Centering prayer deserves its own entry, but I will chime in briefly that apparently centering prayer is what I’ve been doing at Meeting for Worship for years and just didn’t know what to call it. If you want to read a book that really, really explains just what we’re trying to do at Meeting for Worship in concrete, practical steps, this is THE book. And surprisingly, it’s written not by a Quaker, but a contemplative Episcopalian.) Lectio divina is a practice I’ve read about in quite a few books now, but never felt motivated to really try. I found the idea interesting, but just didn’t feel an urge to try it then and there.

After lunch today, I suddenly found myself interested in attending R’s worship meeting with her. But I didn’t know when my husband would be getting home tonight (he’s often out doing service calls at locations over half an hour away, so when we eat dinner is not predictable), so I told her I’d have to let her know later if I could come.

Shortly after I got home from lunch, my husband calls to let me know he’s coming home early.

Way opened!

Tonight’s focus was on two selections from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, lines 6-8 and 19-28. We read three translations: the NIV (1:6-8, 1:19-28), the King James (1:6-8, 1:19-28), and the Message (1:6-8, 1:19-28), in that order. For the first reading, we were encouraged to focus on a word that drew our attention and then share our thoughts about it.

The word that jumped out at me was “light” in lines 6-8:

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

This term has particular meaning to Quakers—we talk a lot about the “inner Light”, the “Light within”, etc.—but the source of our history with that term is biblical. I happen to be reading J. Brent Bill’s book “Mind the Light”, so the word “Light” really popped out of the page.

But that was the… somewhat predictable response. Looking at the same text a second time as seen through a different translation encouraged me to move beyond the predictable and the practiced responses and find something new.

The second word that called out to me was the word “through”:

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him believe.

What struck me was the idea of coming to believe in something through another being. “Through him, all men believe.” It almost felt like the “through” was the verb in that clause, not a preposition. It is often “through” other people that we come to have faith; and Light works through us… We can be conduits to that Light and catalysts to the Light in those we meet.

The third reading revealed to me a pairing of phrases: “completely honest” and “plain truth”, from lines 19-20 in the Message translation:

19-20When Jews from Jerusalem sent a group of priests and officials to ask John who he was, he was completely honest. He didn’t evade the question. He told the plain truth: “I am not the Messiah.”

These phrases sound synonymous, but they’re not always. Sometimes when I’m focused on being “completely honest”, I speak too much and too long. I’m speaking honestly, but my overabundance of words obscures the truth. So there’s a difference between being “completely honest” and living “plain truth”.

What struck me the most, though, about the entire experience tonight was how different an experience it was to read the New Testament in this way. Hearing what words or phrases struck others—hearing the Spirit behind those words—made this text that I’ve now read or heard over a dozen times feel new. I was able to see the text with new eyes.

And what also struck me at the end, as we were praying out loud in a circle,one after another—which is a new experience for me!—was how centered I felt, how centered the entire group felt. It was the same sense that I’ve experienced at Meeting for Worship… but with people whose theological beliefs and practices are different than mine. Yet the Spirit was there, just as it is at Meeting for Worship.

I was called to put myself in an uncomfortable position, to be around people whose beliefs I believe to be different than mine, and to be open and vulnerable with them just the same. I expected to find it challenging—it was. I didn’t expect the experience to be so enjoyable and spiritually refreshing.

Friends, we are called not just to the Light, but to the Light through discomfort. Only by being uncomfortable can we be given the opportunities to respond to the Light within others who reflect the Light differently than we do.

But it is the same Light, Friends.

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Integrity and Right Speech

The slogan I pulled for today is:

“I take up the way of speaking truthfully.”

which was one of my Precept vows.

As a Quaker, we have a Testimony of Integrity that has its roots in Jesus’s command to “let your yea be yea and your nay be nay”. This is a testimony I’ve always felt strongly about and have practiced since I was a child, though I didn’t know about Quakerism back then. I’ve always prided myself on my honesty: I’m the type of person who, when accidentally buying a gift card with 2 envelopes, will be uncomfortable until I’m able to return the extra envelope to the shelf (true story: I felt a huge sense of relief when I was finally able to put the extra envelope back in the store).

But there may be times when telling the truth can be harmful:

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.
“The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

For example, my grandmere (grandmother) is old, traditional, Catholic, and English isn’t her first language. She grew up in a location where the only Christians were Catholics, and the only other religions were Muslim, Jewish, and Druze. Those 4 religions encompass her entire understanding of religion, and she, while a wonderful person, is neither smart enough to understand how Quakerism is different from Catholicism and yet still Christian (I consider Quakerism a Christian religion even though one can be Quaker and not Christian), nor is my French quite good enough to explain the differences adequately under such circumstances. When I first joined my Quaker Meeting, I attempted to explain to Grandmere about my new faith, because I felt it would be dishonest not to do so. This effort led to a lot of confusion and frustration.

But now, I don’t try to explain the differences. When she says things like, “God be with you”, I reply, “And with you, too, Grandmere”, even though I know that her understanding of God is different than mine. I focus on what we have in common–our faith in God, that we are both very committed to our faith–instead of worrying about whether she really understands how my faith is different from hers.

I don’t feel this is dishonest or an affront to my Integrity. Instead, I feel that this approach speaks to the Truth my Grandmere and I share.

There are other times, too, when I can see the truth in a situation, but know that the person I’m speaking to is not at a place where they can hear the truth and that telling the truth when a person is unable to hear it can be harmful. Instead, I try to nudge that person gently towards the truth, step by step, with the hope that one day, he or she will be ready to accept it.

Have any of you had similar experiences?

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Pondering Tattoos and Jesus

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about a weighty topic, such as Integrity or Solitude, but what’s been going through my mind recently is, on the surface, more superficial: I’ve been pondering getting two tattoos when I turn 30 next May–one of a sun on my left inner forearm, one of a lotus flower on my right inner forearm.

The imagery should be obvious to readers of this blog: Light and Lotus, visual representations of my faith.

Yesterday, I began wondering if perhaps instead of two tattoos, I could merge them into one by placing the lotus flower in the bottom of the sun. Doing this, however, would leave an open space above that would seem too empty. The question then arose as to what would I fill it with? My first thought was a silhouette of a person meditating in the lotus position, but I ruled this out for two reasons: 1. I’m unable to meditate in that position, so this image simply wouldn’t be meaningful enough to me to warrant being marked permanently on my skin; and 2. I want balance between my two religions and this would make Buddhism be overly-represented.

The second thought was of a cross, just a simple black-line cross, not a crucifix.

This has led me to rather thorny questions about what I believe about Jesus, or, more aptly, how unconventional my relationship with Jesus is. Getting a tattoo of a cross–even a simple one–would send a message to all who saw it that, look, I’m a Christian.

And yet I’ve been wrestling with that question for years and had, until this thorny tattoo question popped up, been just… well, ignoring it. Placating myself with phrases like, “Labels aren’t important. Faith is.” What makes someone a Christian? My in-laws would give a narrow definition and use words like “Bible-believing” and “Jesus as savior”. In their eyes, I don’t think I count as a Christian. The church I grew up in, the Catholic church, wouldn’t count me as a Christian either, as the Nicene Creed, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection–all these I doubt. In fact, I’m fairly certain most people who call themselves Christians would have a hard time with me counting myself amongst them.

I am, after all, a Buddhist. That by and of itself would disqualify me as a Christian for a whole lot of self-identified Christians.

And yet, I used the phrase “relationship with Jesus” when talking to my husband about this tattoo idea last night. Granted, the context was something like “I don’t know if I’d want to get a tattoo of a cross given how uncertain my relationship with Jesus is”, but that phrase is indicative in and of itself.

And here’s where I’m becoming uncomfortable.

You don’t have a relationship with a dead man. (Let’s not think of exceptions to this, please.) Would I talk about my “relationship with Buddha” or my “relationship with George Fox” or my “relationship with Chenrezig (the bodhisattva of compassion)”? It’s hard for me to imagine actually using those phrases.

The truth is that I’ve been having an ongoing relationship with Jesus since I was a kid. He’s been my main inspiration for how to live morally and ethically. That cliched question “What would Jesus do?” is one I’ve used as my internal moral compass even before I ran into that question in middle school. I haven’t reread the New Testament some half-dozen times out of scholarly interest, but because I want to know Jesus better: who was he? what did he really say? what did he really do? what did he really mean?

But another truth is that I don’t pray to Jesus. I pray to God, and addressing a prayer to Jesus has always made me feel uncomfortable, like I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth. I seriously doubt the tale of the Resurrection as told in the Gospels.

But Pentecost I can accept. That the Holy Spirit could settle in a group of worshipers and draw them closer to God. I believe this because I’ve experienced it for myself at Meeting for Worship. Not every Meeting for Worship, of course, but enough.

To me, the cross has always been a symbol first and foremost of the cost of following God, a visual reminder that doing what is right can have deadly consequences. This is an important symbol for me and one I still have around my house to remind me that following God isn’t always easy.

But as I’ve been writing this post, what has occurred to me is that the Light–represented by the sun in my possible tattoo–is also a symbol of Jesus and one that I’ve always felt a strong attachment to. So I return to my original plan (two simple, small tattoos done in black ink on each forearm, one of a sun, one of a lotus), with new knowledge about my connection with the image of the sun.

If I am a Christian, this is how: because the Inner Light, that Inner Christ, has always been guiding me, nudging me toward God.

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Query on Motivation

There is some conflict/drama in a local organization I’m involved with. This conflict is causing–and is caused by–suffering, and as a bodhisattva, one of my “duties” is to end suffering when I’m able. But even before taking my bodhisattva vow, I’ve always had difficulty in just seeing a conflict and letting it work itself out. I’ve always felt the need to get involved, to help resolve things and restore tranquility to the conflicted party. Growing up, this was one of my family roles, even: to help resolve conflict. And I appeared to be pretty good at it.

This morning, before rising out of bed, I was mulling over the current conflict, wondering what, if any, actions I should take. I found myself daydreaming…

I was addressing the group as a formal “mediator”. I was saying beautiful, heartfelt things that were clearly moving those who were listening. My words pushed against the knot of conflict, unraveling it one heart at a time…

This daydream gave me pause and reminded me of another time where I was considering helping someone. That time, I made use of a query: “Do I want to help her or do I want to be the one who helps her?” I ended up not helping her because I found that my motivation was more of the latter than the former.

So, I’m asking myself now:

Do I want to help resolve this conflict
or
Do I want to be the one who helps resolve this conflict?

And I think that, once again, it’s more of the latter than the former.

Here’s the thing: if I’m more interested in “being the one” who’s providing help, then my actions aren’t going to be about really helping the other person–they’re going to be about me: my pride, my ability to “help”, my dream of greatness. If I’m more interested in”being the one” who’s providing help, my actions very well may be harmful.

So until I’m certain my motivation is not to build up my ego, I will refrain from becoming directly involved in this conflict.

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Filed under daily life, discernment, ego, pride, vanity