Category Archives: ministry

I’m Not Okay.

I’ve been trying to stay silent about what’s been happening in Missouri.

Because I wasn’t there. Because I don’t know the facts. Because there seem to be no unbiased, perfect perspectives. Because the 18 year old who was shot and killed by police may have had a gun. May not have been totally innocent. 

But you know what? I’m not okay with this. I’m not okay with the idea that a black person has to be totally innocent for people to care they died. I’m not okay with police occupying a neighborhood. I’m not okay with a tank going down an American street.

I’m not okay with crime. I’m not okay with neighborhoods all but abandoned economically, educationally. 

I’m not okay with black people being killed by police who, more often than not, face little to no judicial or employment consequences for the death of a person. I’m not okay with cops fearing for their lives, and I’m not okay with the crimes that makes their jobs necessary. 

I’m not okay with poverty used as a means of controlling groups of people. I’m not okay with redlining, with segregated neighborhoods and schools, with communities who close schools and then open more prisons.

I’m not okay with for-profit prisons. 

I’m not okay with transgender people being murdered and the defense that “they tricked me” is still considered a legal excuse. I’m not okay with trans and LGBQ kids being kicked out of their homes, told they’re going to hell and will be damned, forced into conversion therapy, and rejected by the people whose love matters the most to them–their parents.

I’m not okay with any of this. 

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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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Parable (based on a dream)

Each spring, there would be war between the village shepherds and the wolf-men. Each spring, the village shepherds would watch in fury as the wolf-men would steal their sheep. Each spring, many would die: villagers and wolf-men alike.

One spring, the villagers decided they’d had enough. A village council was called where all in the village could speak.

“Those no-good rotten thieving wolf-men!”

“Who do they think they are, that they can walk into our pastures and steal our sheep?”

This continued for quite a while until a young woman found the courage to speak.

“But… what if they don’t know that what they’re doing is stealing?”

Silence rocked the village council until a belligerent voice called out, “But how could they not know? It’s obvious those sheep are ours!”

More angry voices rang out, but the young woman, now that she had found her courage, would not be silenced.

“But what if they don’t know? What if we’re killing each other over a misunderstanding?”

The village council decided this question was worth investigating and decided to send an ambassador to the wolf-men. The young woman was chosen as the ambassador, marked with a brown stripe down her chin, and given a bucket of mutton chunks to carry with her to attract the leader of the wolf-men.

She set out into the woods, fear leaping out at her from every movement. Yet she kept on walking, deeper and deeper into the forest, until she no longer knew her way back.

Lost, and tired of smelling the mutton chunks, she tossed the bucket away and sat down to rest.

As she sat leaning against a tree, she noticed slight movement in front of her. Scared but resolute, she didn’t run away when the leader of the wolf-men approached her.

“Why have you come out this deep into the forest? Are you lost?” He asked.

“Yes, I’m lost.”

“But why have you come?”

“To ask a question.”

“What question?”

“Why do you steal our sheep each spring?”

Taken by surprise at her question, the wolf-man paused a moment before answering.

“Steal? You think we are thieves?”

“Well, yes. Those sheep belong to us.”

“But they are outside. Does this not mean they are free for anyone?”

“No, we keep them outside because… well, because it’s easier than keeping them in our houses.”

Now it was her turn to pause as a new question came to her.

“Wait–if you didn’t know you were stealing, why did you think we were attacking you?”

The leader of the wolf-men shrugged. “We just thought it was something you humans did each spring, like some kind of weird ritual. Like, ‘Oh, now it’s March, time to kill the wolf-men!'”

After another moment, during which both collected their thoughts, the leader of the wolf-men dared to ask, “If we stop… stealing… the sheep, would you stop attacking us?”

“Yes!”

And they lived happily ever after.

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Memorial Day Prayer

On this Memorial Day, I’d like to offer the following prayer:

Hi, God.

On this Memorial Day, may we not ignore those who have suffered because of war. May we be made aware that supporting our soldiers is not about supporting war, but about supporting those who are suffering. May we remember all who have suffered from war: our soldiers, their soldiers, the civilians, and the families who mourn what has happened or what might.

May we recognize the seeds of violence in ourselves: the need to always be right, the inability to see beyond our own perception, the focus on ourselves or those like us while ignoring the perception of those we have difficulty relating to.

May we be made aware of all the ways violence and war affect our lives.

May we see ourselves in those who are similar and those who are different. May we see ourselves in those we think are our enemies, foreign or domestic.

May the love we have for our family and friends grow to include all people.

May all people be free from violence and war.

Amen.

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The Simplicity of Now

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

Carrie Newcomer, “If Not Now”

I made it to Meeting for Worship last Sunday, after only intermittent–at best–attendance so far this year. I came to Meeting clothed in a new practice of mantra meditation that I had just started days before, but had already deepened my meditation practice. But instead of “Om mani padme hum”, the mantra I used was “Veni sancte spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit). I rotated a piece of quartz that I was using as a make-shift prayer wheel. I let the mantra seep through me, letting my attention always come back to it when my mind inevitably wandered. But, I wondered, would meditating like this mean that I would be unable to notice a message from God?

The first message came from a well-seasoned Friend, who rose to give ministry on the topic of simplicity:

If we make simplicity the core of our lives, it will lead us back to the core.

This message sent a vibration through my soul. And as I returned to the mantra of “Veni sancte spiritus”, I felt a message rise up in me. I waited, returning always to the mantra, wondering if this was a real message or just the caffeine from my morning tea hitting my bloodstream. I felt the caffeine drumming in my veins, but I also felt that tell-tale pressure building up in my heart that notifies me that what I have received is a message meant to be shared. (Either that, or I have a serious heart condition and will one day die of a heart attack during Meeting for Worship… Me and every other Friend who has experienced this.) I waited longer, testing to be sure. And then when I finally felt that not standing up to speak would literally result in my heart bursting open then and there, I stood:

The most simple thing is now.

(Later, I would be mildly embarrassed that I’d apparently forgotten the word “simplest”, but the Spirit works with what one has, and at that moment–in spite of the caffeine–the brain I had was apparently only half awake.)

The simplest way to live, the simplest moment to live in, is now. There is nothing simpler than that, though, as one Friend rose to point out during Afterthoughts, this can often be surprisingly difficult. (As an aside, we often conflate simple with easy. This is a mistake we should try to be mindful of.)

Simplicity isn’t just about pruning our material possessions to check for seeds of war (John Woolman) or purchasing a Prius instead of a Hummer, though those kinds of actions are certainly worthwhile and not always easy to do. Simplicity is also about pruning life down to the essentials, to what really matters. And what matters the most in any given moment is that given moment. We can spend so much time and effort pruning our possessions, our activities, how we spend our money… But if we are living each moment without really living it, spending each moment thinking about when or then, we are missing the point.

The point is now. The moment is now. God is now. We are now.

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A New Perspective on Jesus

I’ve been thinking about Jesus for a long time. I was raised Roman Catholic and grew up with a deep faith in God. But I was never sure about Jesus. For a while, I believed in the Trinity. I remember crying while reading about Jesus’s crucifixion in one of the Gospels when I was around 12. I felt so sad that he was killed. In a way, I grew up with Jesus. He was inspiration for moral behavior, he was my faith mentor.

And yet, there was always a sense of discomfort whenever a prayer directly addressed Jesus. (I had the same discomfort with prayers addressed to Mary, though that’s a bit off-topic for this post.) No matter what I wanted to believe about Jesus, praying to him always made feel twitchy, like telling a white lie.

As I said, this has been going on for a while. In high school, I became determined to read the whole Bible before graduation. By the time I graduated from college, I was only to Kings 1 in the Old Testament. As Christmas of 2004 approached, I decided it was time to finish the Bible. My goal was the end of Lent 2005… and I succeeded. In the winter of 2006, I found Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament. Since then, I start reading the New Testament around Christmas and finish by the end of Lent.

All this to say that I’ve read the New Testament at least 4 times now and have been waiting for clearness on this for over 15 years. All this, also, to delay revealing a discernment that has been growing in me since childhood and only became clear to me while randomly talking about Jesus with my husband last night.

I don’t believe Jesus was God. I don’t believe he was the son of God, at least not in the virgin birth, unique way most Christians do. What I do believe is that Jesus was a son of God, in the same way that we’re all sons and daughters of God. But most of all, I believe Jesus was a man–just a man–who was able to connect with God on such a deep level that he and God became united. Jesus lived and breathed God’s will. By the time of his death, he was One with God.

And this is so important, because if Jesus was just a man, if there was nothing unique or special about his birth, this means that all of us have that same opportunity to become united with God. We don’t get to say, “Well, Jesus was Jesus. I’m only human, after all!” as an excuse for our spiritual failings.

We all can connect with God. We all have that potential within us to follow Jesus’s path to God, to live in “the way and the truth and the life”.

And one of the best ways to do this, in my experience, is by reading the New Testament and becoming familiar with Jesus’s life and teachings. He said more than “Love your neighbors as yourself” (and he wasn’t even the first to say that anyways!). His life reveals the importance of fellowship, of solitude, of prayer, of ministry, of healing, and of constructive criticism.

So, now I know the answer to the “Am I Christian” question that I’ve been asking myself for the last few years. Yes, even though many Christians wouldn’t agree with my theology. I am a Christian because I try to follow Jesus and because the New Testament is my primary Holy Book.

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A Gathered Popcorn Meeting

Shortly after I became a regular attender at my Monthly Meeting, I heard infamous tales about Popcorn Meetings for Worship. I remember in particular hearing about a terrible Meeting for Worship my Friends had attended once in D.C., where an older person stood up and ranted about how disrespectful young people were, and then he was immediately followed by a young person who ranted about old people. They went back and forth through the whole Meeting.

Popcorn Meetings I’ve always heard spoken of with disdain. They’re Meetings for Worship where people pop up, one after another, leaving next to no time for real worship, i.e., of the silent variety. I’ve experienced a couple of them myself and thought their infamy was well-deserved.

So I was pretty disappointed last Sunday when it became clear that Meeting for Worship was definitely becoming a Popcorn Meeting. It all started with the monthly reading of a Query:

How does our Meeting help to create and maintain a society whose institutions recognize and do away with the inequities rooted in patterns of prejudice and economic convenience?

Is our Meeting open to all regardless of race, ability, sexual orientation, or class?

What steps are we taking as a Meeting to assure that our Meeting and the committees and institutions under our care reflect our respect for all and are free from practices rooted in prejudice?

Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried, including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority?

What am I doing to help overcome the contemporary effects of past and present oppression?

Am I teaching my children, and do I show through my way of living, that love of God includes affirming the equality of people, treating others with dignity and respect, and seeking to recognize and address that of God within every person?

This is a hard query for my Monthly Meeting, as conflict about same-sex marriages left many hurt several years ago. As a result, this query tends to generate somewhat predictable messages in Meeting for Worship. This time was no exception.

I strove to find God in the brief moments of silence as person after person stood to give a message. As I try to write down the crux of the messages after Meeting, I desperately attempted to quickly memorize crux after crux. In the end, 11 people rose to speak in a 60 minute meeting. And somewhere in the middle of Meeting, I found myself wondering if attempting to worship for the rest of the Meeting was even worth it. “How can I possibly worship when someone is standing to speak every 5 minutes?”

I felt annoyed. “Another Popcorn Meeting,” I thought dismissively. In doing so, I also dismissed the quality of the messages.

Luckily, God ignored my dismissal. The messages were, whatever I thought of them at the time, Spirit-led. Friend after Friend rose to speak truth to power about the Meeting’s avoidance of discussing same-sex marriage. Friend after Friend rose to speak about the need to love those who disagree. Friend after Friend rose to remind us that disagreement is another form of diversity. Friend after Friend rose to say that acceptance doesn’t necessitate tolerance of opinions that harm others.

Friend after Friend rose to honor their Light within.

Meeting for Worship with attention to Business followed shortly after Meeting for Worship. More people rose to voice their discomfort with our Meeting’s lack of action regarding same-sex marriage. And at the end of Meeting for Business, in the slot for “future concerns”, the recording clerk rose to say that her sense was that it was time for us to act. She suggested a called Meeting for Business about same-sex marriage, to be held in September. After more discussion, a Friend rose to suggest a committee be formed to prepare for the called Meeting for Business.

Friends were in unity. And after years of inaction–or, to be accurate, indirect action–my Monthly Meeting is, finally, acting, directly and openly. And this fruit of action was sown by seeds planted in a Popcorn Meeting, a Meeting I dismissed as not counting as “real” worship.

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Responsibility

At last Meeting for Worship, the state of the economy was mentioned several times, always followed by comments like “their greed”, “they put us into this mess”, “they allowed their greed to overwhelm them”, “they”, “they”, “they”. By the end of Meeting, I felt uncomfortable and a bit of a nudge, so subtle that I missed it at the time.

I rose at Afterthoughts and felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: the Guide. I paused  before speaking and prefaced my thoughts with an urge for everyone to take what I was going to say as a challenge, not as a criticism. This is what followed, as much as memory allows:

I understand our anger at people like the CEO at AIG, etc. I think this anger is justified. I think it’s easiest, and right in a way, to place the blame for our economy on them. But it’s not just them. And as soon as we make them into a them, we lose sight of the part we all played in this. They are not the only ones responsible. We all are. We all participated in this: wanting the best deal, not doing adequate research on companies we supported… And the thing is, because it’s not just their responsibility to fix this, we all can take a part in change. We’re all a little responsible. And that means we don’t have to leave it up to them to change. We can start on our own.

A few people came up to me after Meeting to thank me for what I’d said. And yesterday’s slogan reaffirmed this for me:

Look upon your treasures and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in your possessions.

(John Woolman)

Today, on this historic Inauguration, I want to quote part of Bishop Gene Robinson’s opening, under-televised, prayer from Sunday at 2:

We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one.

Yes, we are. Because if our government and our corporations have control over our society, it is because we handed it to them, slowly but surely. It is time for us to start taking control of our own lives. It is time for us to “be the change we want to see” (Gandhi).

It’s time for change. And not just for them to change, but for us, too.

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Jesus as the Way

I wrote this in my real journal last night and feel inclined to share it:


I’ve been almost plagued with confusion over whether I’m a Christian or not. It just seems like one of those questions one should know the answer to, and my answer is that I don’t know. I feel defensive whenever I say I’m a Christian. I try to follow Jesus’s teachings, I worship God, I follow [or try to follow] leadings I’m given, I take my faith seriously: is this not enough? I believe God loves us enough to become mortal and die for us.

I guess what concerns me is idolatry. If Jesus is not God and I begin to worship him, I would be committing idolatry. And there’s no way to know, not really. And part of me feels like I’m splitting hairs and missing the point, that it doesn’t really matter if Jesus is God, just that God loves us enough to do it.

But what about the Holy Spirit?

Does it matter if Jesus as described in the New Testament truly existed or not? Is it not enough that God chose to reveal this aspect of Him: that He loves us enough to die for us? If I know that, isn’t that enough?

And yet, praying to Jesus makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I imagine Jesus as the medium through which communion with God is possible. And whether he was or was not, the possibility of his existence has led me to God.

But the road is not the destination. Sunlight is not the sun.

Or is it? Would the destination be the same without the road there? What would the purpose of the sun be without its rays?

None shall come to the Father except through me.

But people start from different places. Their roads to God must each be different. Imagine God as the center of a circle. We are on the circumference. Each of us has a straight path that leads us to God.

This does not make God subjective, only our experiences of Him. A pebble is always a pebble, whether it decorates your garden or is in your shoe.

But Jesus. If one grants him divinity, does human divinity not follow? It’s a concern. Where does God end and man begin? Especially if Jesus connects the two.

And again, I feel I’m missing the point and getting mired in details.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Not the person, but the way. Of peace. Of self-sacrifice borne from love. Of compassion. Of mercy. Of faith. Of following God’s will.

This is how I did it. Do the same, and find God.

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Uneven Footing

I’ve had a lot percolating in my mind recently. I wanted things to settle, to develop into a more definite shape, before saying anything on here. But I am starting to think that maybe the murkiness is the message.

I am on uneven footing. Nothing significant in my life has changed recently, but I’ve been unable to find a consistent schedule during the day and have been unable to attend Meeting for Worship regularly. Both of these have contributed to my current state of discomfort. I feel distanced from my Meeting, and from God. I doubt my ability to discern accurately leadings from my old addiction to drama. I worry that I’ve turned into the kind of person who can only see the bad in things and not the good.

I worry that it’s been my interaction with my Meeting over the last year that has led me to this.

I am still not sure of how much to say on here and what I should hold back and keep for private until God bonks me on the head and says, “ENOUGH! I told you to SPEAK, didn’t I? That was the leading you were given! Why have you not been faithful?”

And that’s the crux of it: I was given a leading to speak up:

I am, quite simply, being called to speak. I am being called to break the silence that smothers my Meeting with regards to non-heterosexual people, loves, sexuality, and even faith. I am being called to stand up and challenge heterosexism whenever and wherever I see it.

I am being called to honor silence when used in worship, but to reject silence when it is oppressive. I am called to respect the comfort levels of other people, but only when they do not deny a part of my being.

from here.

Have I been faithful? Have I been faithful? No. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being ostracized in my Meeting and in one of my Meeting committees. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being called a “trouble maker” again. I’ve stayed silent because I don’t want to lose my Meeting, and yet I feel it slipping further and further away from me the longer my voice is silenced by fear.

Here is what I feel: I feel decay within my Meeting. I feel that we’ve made our old Meetinghouses into sacred places, thus reducing the sacredness of the ordinary. I feel that we’ve fallen into the trap of worshiping silence instead of worshiping the Divine. I feel that we care more about maintaining the current status quo–not rocking the boat–more than we care about following leadings given to us by God. I feel that most of us are too busy with our own lives to truly want to do the work required to find unity: we want the unity without the work; what we get is consensus.

This is what I see. This is what I feel. But what I am being called to do with this, I don’t know. I wrote my Meeting a letter last spring that raised related, but different, concerns. The letter was handed to Overseers, who thanked me for the letter but didn’t believe my concerns were valid. That wasn’t exactly what was said, of course, but that is what their lack of action told me.

And thus, I am on uneven footing. The ground beneath me changes with each step. I feel like I’m floundering. And I can’t help but wonder: what if I am the problem? What if I’m making mountains out of molehills? What if they are right to disregard my concerns? And if I thought I was following a leading, how can I learn to trust my discernment again? How can I learn to trust God again, when following this leading (see here) has caused me so much pain and despair?

And yet, how can I say no?

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