Category Archives: faith

“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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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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Discontent

I have not been attending Meeting for Worship regularly recently.

I have not been meditating regularly recently.

…And yet I gave up sweets for Lent, though I haven’t been Catholic for years and don’t really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as Christ…

The truth is that I go through phases: phases where I’m meditating every day, where I’m attending Meeting for Worship twice a month or more, where I feel very grounded and connected to both the religions I’ve claimed as my own.

I haven’t been feeling that connected recently.

Still, I see their subtle effects in my life: my tendency towards always telling the truth as best as I know it; my constant attempts to do as little harm as possible, or at least cause as little suffering as possible (even to bugs!); the constant background to every action that nudges me towards living up to the Quaker Testimonies and the Buddhist vows I’ve taken.

The truth is, I suppose, that I’m not sure how much I miss the outward “actions” I’m “supposed” to be doing. Shouldn’t I be missing meditating and Meeting for Worship?

The two faith practices that have stuck with me are praying before sleeping and spiritual reading. Perhaps these are enough for now. Perhaps I should dispel the “should”s for a while and do what feels most meaningful to me.

Perhaps I should release the worry that maybe I’m not really a Quaker or a Buddhist because I’m not doing x, y, or z.

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“Only Breath” By Rumi (As Translated By Coleman Barks)

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

*******

There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.

This pretty much sums up my faith.

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Finding Balance

When I was in 8th grade, I had a theory about how the world worked. The theory was that there was a finite, definite amount of suffering and happiness in the world, and that, consequently, the more I suffered, the less others would suffer. In a way, this gave my pain of that year a purpose: after all, if I wasn’t suffering, that would mean someone else would be.

8th grade was a hard year for me. I’d had a falling out with most of my friends from the previous year and was left with only 2, other outcasts who it was social suicide to spend too much time with. But they were good, true friends, and I wish I had treated them better before I had no other choice. In addition to social things, there was family turmoil. And, of course, there was always my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis looming in the background.

In retrospect, I suspect this worldview came from a desire to find meaning in my suffering. At the time, my faith was very strongly Christian, if not completely in line with the Catholic Church. But Jesus was very important to me and I related very strongly with the suffering he went through. If my suffering was to prevent others from suffering, then it had a purpose, a meaning, like Jesus’s suffering did. After all, Jesus suffered on the cross and died so that we could be free from sin. Like Jesus, I was willing to suffer so that others wouldn’t have to. And that connection and belief made it more bearable.

But the flip-side to this worldview is very, very dangerous, especially to a kid permeated with the guilt and sin teachings of the Catholic Church. Believing that my suffering would prevent someone else’s also meant that if I was happy, I was actively causing someone else to suffer.

By the end of the year, I’d fallen into a pretty deep depression that I only made it out of because of a wonderful experience that year at Arthritis Camp.

But the desire to take on another’s suffering is at the heart of the Bodhisattva vow I took a month ago. The difference now is that I’m a lot more spiritually and emotionally capable of doing so; though even now, I’m not fully able to take on the suffering of all beings, as my vow requires. I know that, in a very real way, I–and all others–are already Buddhas, we already have bodhichitta/Buddha-nature within us, but I, like most others, have not fully realized that. I have not, as Quakers would say, come to know that experientially.

The other difference is that I don’t believe in the same worldview. I don’t believe that my happiness actively causes someone else to suffer, or that my pain prevents another from suffering, nor that there is a finite, definite amount of suffering and happiness in the world.

The point I want to make is that finding balance is essential. One cannot take on the pain of the world before one is able. So often, we try to do too much. This is especially true of people who volunteer their time who often feel obligated to do more than they can because someone has to do it. But one cannot offer more than one is able to do. For example, if a charity needed someone, for whatever obscure reason, to perform a handstand and I volunteered to do so, I would then be put in a position to do something that’s not physically possible for me to do, no matter how much I desired to help out and do it.

And there’s the other side of this, also, when we refuse to do what we can because we assume there are others who are more able or more willing to do so… or because we just, ultimately, don’t want to get any more involved.

I am lucky that both of my religions offer concrete, solid practices for finding this balance. As a Buddhist, meditation allows me to gain Right Understanding. And as a Quaker, waiting on God, meditative listening, and the process of discernment allows me to figure out what I can and can’t do.

And there’s always the push, also, that thrusts one out of one’s comfort zone and into a whole new place, that makes one realize that one’s limits are quite a bit further away than one thought.

What methods of finding balance do you use?

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