Category Archives: struggling with faith

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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Christ and the Way of Non-Self

As often happens to me during Meeting for Worship, this morning I found my thoughts turning to Jesus. In particular, I found myself reflecting on Jesus’s statement that one must lose one’s life in order to gain it:

“Then summoning the multitude together with his disciples, he said to them: If anyone wishes to go after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For he who wishes to save his life shall lose it; and he who loses his life for the sake of me and the gospel shall save it. For what does it advantage a man to gain the whole world and pay for it with his life? What can a man give that is worth as much as his life? He who is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous generation, of him will the son of man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.”

(Gospel of Mark, 8:34-38)

And again in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples: If anyone wishes to go after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For he who wishes to save his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it. For what will it advantage a man if he gains the whole world but must pay with his life? Or what will a man give that is worth as much as his life? The son of man is to come in the glory of his father among his angels…”

(Gospel of Matthew, 16:24-27)

The first ministry that was offered in Meeting for Worship today was about how Third Haven encouraged this Friend to love God with all his being:

“But when the Pharisees heard that he [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together, and one of them who was versed in the law questioned him, making trial of him: Master, in the law, which is the great commandment? He said: That you shall love the Lord your God in all your heart and all your spirit and all your mind. That is the great commandment, and the first. There is a second, which is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments all the law and the prophets depend.”

(Gospel of Matthew, 22:34-40)

Here’s the point: one cannot worship God if one is too busy worshiping oneself. If one is too caught up in ego, in the life one wants and feels one deserves, one cannot love the Lord with all one’s heart, one’s spirit, and one’s mind, because one is too caught up in one’s self.

But what does losing one’s life and one’s love of self have to do with the second commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Buddhism has two core teachings (in addition to the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path), that of emptiness and compassion. Here is how the logic works in Buddhism: when one finally realizes that the Self is merely an illusion of the mind and does not have an independent, permanent existence, the distinction between Self and Other vanishes. Thus, one can literally love your neighbor as yourself, because there is no longer a difference between the two.

To be able to love God as He deserves–with all your heart, mind, and spirit–one must give up one’s life and one’s attachment to one’s self. (As Jesus says in many of the Gospels, “No one can serve two Masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”) And in the process of losing one’s life and sense of individual self, one can come to another realization: that we are, all of us, children of God, equally worthy of His love, and as worthy of our own love as we ourselves are.

The first step, though, in both Buddhism and Christianity is to give up the idea of one’s individual self. And this I struggle with. I’m very attached to Me. I have such a tendency to turn my spiritual growth into accomplishments that bolster my ego: “Look how many times I’ve read the Bible! Look at how I’ve taken my Vows at such an early age! Look how spiritual I am!”

I want to love others as myself, to follow where God leads me, to truly KNOW the way of emptiness and compassion as taught in Buddhism, but the truth is that I am too bound up in love and pride of my own Self.

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Abandon All Hope: A Slogan Post

This morning, I woke up around 5:20AM to the sound of one of our cats misbehaving, ribcage pain, and a definite feeling of melancholy. What if, I wondered, all those times I thought I was doing God’s will or experiencing God, I was just deluding myself, feeling what I wanted to feel? I haven’t been able to shake that question. And today’s slogan post is the universe having a laugh:

Abandon any hope of fruition.

I think of this slogan as the Dante “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” slogan. Pema Chodron explains it as:

Stay in the present.

The point, I think, is similar to the “Don’t expect applause” slogan: that one should act for the moment, not for some future result. Is this action worth doing, even if nothing should come of it in the future? Is the journey worthwhile in and of itself?

I can’t help but think of Mother Teresa, who, after hearing God’s call to go to Calcutta, never experienced God’s presence ever again… and yet, she stayed in Calcutta.

Honestly, I’ve been finding a lot of actions related to my religion stale recently. I am still reading the New Testament, but it’s not shining the way it used to. I have not been attending Meeting for Worship as enthusiastically or as frequently as I used to, partially because my husband has needed the extra sleep (he drives me) and partially because I’ve been finding it stale. My committee work is also feeling that way.

Queries: Is Meeting for Worship worth attending for its own sake? Is the work I do in Meeting committees worthwhile?

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Dig Deep: A Slogan Post

Dig deep, carefully cast forth the loose matter and get down to the rock… and there hearken to the divine voice which gives a clear and certain sound.

John Woolman

The hiatus went on longer than I had originally intended. In the past few weeks, I’ve been questioning what my purpose is on posting these slogans on here. If my aim is to make me pay more attention to them, wouldn’t journaling on my own accomplish that? Or do I benefit from knowing others read this (or assuming others do), that thinking other people who know what I’m claiming to do will hold me accountable in some way if/when I fail?

And I do fail with these slogans more often than not. There are so many days when I reread the day’s slogan before going to bed, remember something that happened during the day, and realized that was a missed opportunity to actually live up to the day’s slogan.

Today’s slogan strikes me. It has been over a month since I’ve felt the weight of a leading or the presence of the Divine. I actually fell asleep for a moment during last Sunday’s Meeting for Worship; I’ve been so tired these last few weeks, so burdened with day to day stuff that I’m beginning to feel almost smothered. And yet, there are so many things I want to do. I’ve just finished writing up a schedule that I am going to try to stick to. It leaves me about 2 hours of wiggle room every day, and yet…

By trying to schedule my life, by giving myself goals and things I want to accomplish, am I blocking out God? Am I telling God that he has to fit into a schedule? (See, right there, 10AM-12PM: Meditate, Internet, Breakfast… and then those few moments before I fall asleep at night.) Am I insinuating that my goals take precendence over His?

I am reading Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament for the 3rd time or so in the last 3 years. The first time I read it was almost like a revelation; the 2nd time, I kept finding new things in it that I had missed; this time, it seems stale, redundant. I don’t know if I’m not being as open to it as I should be or if it’s just not the religious work I’m being called to read right now.

All of this is loose matter. But I am both scared to cast it forth and scared that I might not find the rock underneath.

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Neurosis: A Slogan Post

Train in the three difficulties.

Pema Chodron explains the three difficulties as:

1. To recognize your neurosis as neurosis,

2. then not to do the habitual thing but something different,

3. to make this practice a way of life.

I think all of us have things we automatically do when we get stressed, bored, antsy, upset, etc. For me, it’s picking the skin on my fingertips and lips. I’ve been trying to stop now for, oh, about 10 years. In a sense, I have gotten better: there was a point where I would pick my skin in my sleep, and I don’t do that anymore. But in another sense, 10 years?

There are so many reasons to continue: it’s not that harmful, it relaxes me, what would I do in its place… What would I do in its place? Why do I need to something at all? Why can I not just sit and rest with the antsyness, the anxiety, the boredom, the stress, the sadness, the pain? This is the crux of it: that I am trapped in this cycle where I always have to be doing something, even if that something is picking my skin. I enjoy feeling productive, and picking my skin buys into that: I am doing something, I can see results, I am working towards a goal (the goal being smooth skin, which I rationally know can never be accomplished by picking, and yet…).

Meditation can become a “productive” activity as well: how long was I able to meditate for today, did I keep proper posture, did I stick to the mantra, did I…

Even today’s slogan fuels this need to do something, or, at least, Pema Chodron’s explanation of it:

then not to do the habitual thing but something different

I.e., do something else.

And here I am, picking my skin while I write this.

Sometimes I worry that I’ve become so focused on the ends that I’ve forgotten about the means, in particular; that I’ve forgotten about activities that are worth doing for their own sake instead of for a particular end.

I’ve made meditation and worship into a productive activity.

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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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Quaker Burn-out?

I have mixed feelings about posting about this on here, as I like to present myself to you all as firm and happy in my Quaker faith. But the truth is that I’ve been feeling a bit burnt out for the last few months. Part of it is real life: I have surgery coming up in 10 days, lost my cat 2 months ago, my health issues are acting up in a really bad way… Life hasn’t been leaving me much energy recently.

But I used to not think of attending Meeting for Worship as requiring energy. Yes, it involved getting up two hours earlier than normal, but the fatigue was always worth it. Now I’ve only been to Meeting for Worship something like three times in the last two months, and, honestly, I haven’t been missing it much.

It’s not because I don’t still believe that Quakerism is my religious home. It’s not because I think another kind of worship other than silent, expectant waiting would be better for me. It’s because, quite simply, I am tired of being put on the defensive at my Meeting.

I am tired of the assumptions being made that when I speak about our “same gender issue” problem, I’m doing it to “stir up trouble” and not because I’m following a leading. I’m tired of the assumption being made that because I wasn’t born a Quaker, or raised a Quaker, or haven’t been a Quaker for 40+ years, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m tired of having to prove that I’m actually following a leading and not just allowing my ego to “stir up trouble”. I am tired of offering myself to my Meeting, and being told, “Gee, thanks, but we don’t see the problem”, which implies that, once again, I’m just trying to “stir up trouble”.

I’m just tired, ultimately. And, sure, my current health issues (such as neck and jaw inflammation) would make attending Meeting for Worship very painful… but in the past, it would have been worth it. Now? I’m not so sure.

The fact is that my Monthly Meeting has become, overall, a source of stress in my life. I’m still being nurtured most of the time by my committee work, which gives me hope. But it wasn’t committee work that drew me to Third Haven, but the worship. And my experiences in Meeting for Worship recently have been less and less spiritually nourishing, because they’ve been tainted with the “stir up trouble” claim.

I am considering taking some time off from my Meeting, maybe even the whole summer. I am concerned I’m not in the right state of mind to be helpful to my Meeting, that I am too angry, hurt, and frustrated. But I am also concerned that taking time off is a cop-out because I just don’t want to deal with my Meeting anymore. (And it’s so sad to me that I can even talk about my Meeting as something to “deal with”.)

A F/friend from Meeting, who no longer regularly attends, suggested I try another Meeting. This isn’t really an option until the fall, but I am considering it.

I’m just feeling very distanced from my Meeting right now; unfortunately, this has the effect of making me feel distanced from Quakerism, because most of my experience with Quakerism has happened through my Meeting. I am still hoping to come back to this blog and start writing again more regularly after I recover from my surgery, but I’m not sure about where I fit within Quakerism anymore. I feel like I’ve been labeled a troublemaker and this has me worry that maybe I am one.

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Paradox

I’ve been wondering about the first commandment recently:

“I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.”

It seems like a fairly straightforward commandment: basically, don’t worship anyone or anything other than God. I always assumed that this commandment at least was one that I didn’t have to worry about. But recent online conversations I’ve both been watching and a part of have made me start to question that assumption.

I think evangelical Quakers (and other conservative Christians) are right to criticize us liberal Quakers about the fuzziness of our faith. Let me be brutally honest and not stereotypical: they are right to criticize me about the fuzziness of my faith. Ask me if the God I worship is the God of the Bible, and I’ll reply with something like: “Well, yes, I think so, but I think I maybe see a different side of Him than what’s portrayed in parts of the Bible.” Ask me if Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Trinity, and I’ll say, “Well, I don’t know, but I do believe he led his life in accordance with God’s will more than pretty much anyone else.”

Fuzziness. Ask me any specific question about the God I worship, and my answer will be fuzzy. Even the most basic question of His existence, and I’ll account for the possibility that I could be wrong!

How can I be sure that I am worshiping God and not an idol of my own creation if I don’t know — can’t say — who He is? I want to be right, but I don’t want to be right when it means other people are wrong. What’s left? How can I say or think things like “I believe in God, but it doesn’t bother me if you don’t”, or “I could always be wrong”? What kind of commitment is that? If I’m too scared to jump in, to have a faith that has real definition, why should I be disappointed when I don’t feel God’s presence as often as I’d like?

And yet, there are problems with defining God, and I don’t just mean philosophically. If I can say without any uncertainty that I know who God is, how do I reconcile that with my flawed humanity? (Perhaps humanity isn’t flawed, but that’s another discussion.) How can I relate to people who don’t know God, or know another God, or know God differently, without making myself superior to them? And any who say that that wouldn’t happen, frankly, have some trouble with empathy. If knowing God is better than not knowing God, then knowing God is a good thing, then those who know God are, at least in that aspect, better than those who don’t. Frankly, I’m not comfortable with that. How could I respond to that of God in them if all I see is that of God in me?

(There are also theological questions about how the nature of God could possibly have limits, but I’m not interested in a theological debate here. I’m interested in a purely practical one.)

I just feel very stuck here. If I can’t move past the fuzziness, I feel my faith will suffer, as it is hard to maintain a relationship when one party is undefined (and that’s what faith should be: an ongoing relationship between deity and person). But if I move past the fuzziness to a solid definition, I worry about that knowledge, that certainty, feeding my ego and diminishing God’s other creations.

So the question remains: how do I truly follow the first commandment without breaking Jesus’s commandment (…“that you love one another as I have loved you.”)?

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Crossroads

*cue Bone Thugs-n-Harmony music*

I’ve discerned that I need to take a break from religious reading for awhile. I don’t think I’ve learned all that I can from religious books; but I have some questions that I need to answer for myself first, before I continue studying either Buddhism or Christianity.

The first question I need to answer is: Is the type of Buddhism that speaks most to me, namely Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, compatible with my belief in God? This isn’t a question anyone can answer for me, but one that I need to answer for myself. No one else knows what my belief in God is but me. No one else knows what specifically speaks to me from that tradition of Buddhism. I’m hoping the answer to this question will be yes, but just because I want that to be the answer doesn’t mean that actually will be the answer.

The second question is only applicable if the answer to the first question is no. If that is the case, then I will be faced with a choice about which religious/spiritual path to follow. I likely will be able to stay a Quaker regardless (instead of believing the Inner Light is guiding those who speak at Meeting, I could say it’s their inner bodhichitta, for example), but my faith in God has been with me for as long as I can remember. I will have to choose between following the path of a bodhisattva, or trying to give up my faith in God.

Like I said, I hope the answer to the first question is yes. But I need to figure that out for myself, without relying on someone else to answer it for me. Like George Fox said, “what canst thou say?” So far, I’ve been able to both practice tonglen and, to a lesser extent, meditation daily and pray to God each night and during the day when I feel called to do so. I am hopeful that I’ll be able to reconcile the two.

But there’s a part of me that feels I already know the answer, and that that answer is no. And that part of me feels that my life right now will be a crossroads, that Sugar’s declining health will be the catalyst, the clarifier, towards one or another… that I will learn more about my faith in these next few months than I have thus far in life.

What both have in common is the desire to stay open. And that is what I’ll be focussing on while I struggle to answer these questions. Part of me wishes I had a Buddhist teacher or knew a Buddhist Quaker from whom I could seek guidance. But most of me knows that I have to figure this out on my own.

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Groundless

During Meeting for Worship, I offered up to God the following prayer:

Lord, I feel like I’m a fish out of water, flopping around on the shore. Please help me flop back towards your Living Waters instead of further inland.

That is pretty much how I feel right now. I feel very groundless and very uncomfortable. The Pema Chodron books I’ve read over the past couple of months encourage this feeling, encourage getting comfortable with groundlessness and uncertainty instead of fleeing from it with distractions or by making a storyline out of life. I’ve tried hard to keep that in mind these last couple of days.

But this also seems contrary to my Christian instincts of reaching towards God as my center, and I worry that theism and Buddhism cannot coexist. I’ve found such inspiration to be a kinder, more compassionate person from the Buddhist books I’ve been reading; but what if those practices contradict my belief in God?

Bodhichitta is a Buddhist term for “the awakened heart of loving-kindness and compassion… openness, ultimate truth, our true nature…” It’s beginning to remind me a lot of what Quakers call “that of God”. The goal of Mahayana Buddhism, or one of them at least, is for every person to become united with their inner bodhichitta. This reminds me a lot of one of the goals of praying and/or worshipping in the manner of Friends: for each person to be able to connect to God. But I worry that I am imposing my Christian and Quaker beliefs onto something that should stand on its own. Perhaps by trying to merge the two (three?) faiths, I am doing a disservice to both.

This worries me, and I don’t have clarity yet about it. What I do know is that reading books about Buddhism, especially those written by Pema Chodron and her guru Choygam Trungpa, have inspired me to be a more compassionate, more friendly person in ways that reading Christian or Quaker books haven’t. Jesus showed me the way, but it feels like the stones on the path of my life are Buddhist more than Christian. Maybe the ground underneath is Christian and the borders are Quaker? Maybe I’m taking that metaphor too seriously.

Sugar, my 16 year old Siamese cat who I’ve known since she was a day old, is dying. She might not die in the next month, or even the next year, but she is dying. And it sounds almost silly to say that, because really we’re all dying… but she is acutely dying in a way that everyone else that I know and love aren’t. The hardest part for me isn’t giving her biweekly subcutaneous fluid IVs. The hardest part is trying to get her to eat. Every hour or so, I offer her food. And I watch her lick it a few times. Then, she turns around, and I put the food in front of her again. And she licks it a couple more times. We repeat this process until she starts cleaning herself. All this takes about 15-20 minutes, and she eats maybe a tablespoon worth. (She has kidney disease and will be progressively getting worse for the remainder of her life, however long or short that may be.)

I am trying to focus on the fact that she’s still alive. I am trying to enjoy her company and shower her with as much love as she’s shown me. But when I am truly honest with myself, what scares me the most isn’t her impending death. What scares me the most is that I’m not sure I’m strong enough to watch her go through this. (I’m starting to think that adults stop having pets and start having kids because they’re tired of watching the ones they love die.) I’m not sure I’m strong enough to do what I’ve been doing for the last 10 days every day for the rest of her life. But I love her, and failing her like that isn’t an option.

She reminded me last Thursday, when I was shoving food in her face repeatedly, that what she needs most now isn’t food, but love. She nuzzled up against me and started purring. She is teaching me patience and reminding me of the importance of love.

There’s no easy way out of this.

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