Quaker House interview with Lynn and Steve Newsom. My author video chat. See the Friends Journal post for more, including a transcript.
Quaker House interview with Lynn and Steve Newsom. My author video chat. See the Friends Journal post for more, including a transcript.
Warning: this is a blog post about blogging.
It’s always fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of my blogging. Quakerranter, my “main” blog has been remarkably quiet. I’m still up to my eyeballs with blogging in general: posting things to QuakerQuaker, giving helpful comments and tips, helping others set up blogs as part of my consulting business. My Tumblr blog and Facebook and Twitter feeds all continue to be relatively active. But most of these is me giving voice to others. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and publisher; lately I’ve been focused on the latter.
When I started blogging about Quaker issues seven years ago, I was a low-level clerical employee at an Quaker organization. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a certain freedom. More importantly, blogs were a nearly invisible medium, read by a self-selected group that also wanted to talk openly and honestly about issues. I started writing about issues in among liberal Friends and about missed outreach opportunities. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hindsight, the archives give me plenty of “told you so” credibility. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?
Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed opportunities. Lots of Quaker money and humanly activity is going into projects that don’t have God as a center. No amount of ranting is going to dissuade good people from putting their faith into one more staff reorganization, mission rewrite or clever program.It’s a distraction to spend much time worrying about them.
But the biggest change is that my heart is squarely with God. I’m most interested in sharing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheerleader for any particular human institution, no matter how noble its intentions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the context of 350 years of Friends’ understanding of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of people in our meetinghouses that don’t understand it this way anymore. And also aware that the seeker wanting to pursue the Quaker way might find it more closely modeled in alternative Christian communities. There are people all over listening for God and I see many attempts at reinventing Quakerism happening among non-Friends.
I know this observation excites some people to indignation, but so be it: I’m trusting God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the communities we bring together to worship Him keep getting distracted, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every person of faith of every generation has to remember, re-experience and revive the message. That happens in church buildings, on street corners, in living rooms, lunch lines and nowadays on blogs and internet forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the message is getting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insisting on only one channel of sharing that message. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to manifest this in our world: his kingdom come and will be done on earth.
But what would this look like?
When I first started blogging there weren’t a lot of Quaker blogs and I spent a lot more time reading other religious blogs. This was back before the emergent church movement became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Zondervan and wasn’t dominated by hype artists (sorry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter these days). There are still great bloggers out there talking about faith and readers wanting to engage in this discussion. I’ve been intrigued by the historical example of Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker perspective using non-Quaker language. And sometimes I geek out and explain some Quaker point on a Quaker blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an experienced Friend who had never been presented with a classic Quaker explanation on the point in question. My tracking log shows seekers continue to be fascinated and drawn to us for our traditional testimonies, especially plainness.
I’ve put together topic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, maybe too much to put on top of what I do with QuakerQuaker (plus work, plus family). There’s also questions about where to blog and whether to simplify my blogging life a bit by combining some of my blogs but that’s more logistics rather than vision.
Interesting stuff I’m reading that’s making me think about this:
I’m experimenting with Quaker Quote of the Day for the QuakerQuaker Twitter account. You should be able to read them on Twitter here. Extended versions will be on QuakerQuaker’s new QOTD blog.It’s hard to pack a good quote into only 140 characters so there will be some shortening, but the full piece should give it a bit more context.
I’ll be mostly quoting historical Friends but I might throw a living person in there once in awhile. I won’t use a quote book to deliver the same adage you’ve heard a million times before. I’ll also try not to chop it up into a meaning that goes against the author’s intention.
A recent article on the art and science of taste and smell in the New Yorker had a paragraph that stood out for me. The author John Lanchester had just shared a moment where he suddenly understood the meaning behind “grainy,” a term that had previously been an esoteric wine descriptor. He then writes:
The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously
might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the
references are really useful only to people who have had the same
experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a
shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language. To people who
haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.
How might this apply to Quakerism? A post-modernist philosopher might argue that our words are our experience and their argument would be even stronger for communal experiences. I once spent a long afternoon worrying whether the colors I saw were really the same colors others saw: what if what I interpreted as yellow was the color others saw as blue? After turning around the riddle I ended up realizing it didn’t matter as long as we all could point to the same color and give it the same name.
But what happens when we’re not just talking about yellow. Turning to the Crayola box, what if we’re trying to describe the yellowish colors apricot, dandelion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super happy“. Being a Crayola connoisseur requires an investment not only in a box of colored wax but also in time: the time needed to experience, understand and take ownership in the various colors.
Religion can be a like wine snobbery. If you take the time to read the old Quaker journals and reflect on your spiritual experiences you can start to understand what the language means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, outdated and parochial. They become your own religious vocabulary. When I pick up an engaging nineteenth journal (not all are!) and read stories about the author’s spiritual up and downs and struggles with ego and community, I smile with shared recognition. When I read an engaging historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod knowing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blogospheric bruhaha.
Of course I love outreach and want to share the Friends “sensory experience.” One way to do that is to strip the language and make it all generic. The danger of course is that we’re actually changing the religion when we’re change the language. It’s not the experience that makes us Friends – all people of all spiritual persuasions have access to legitimate religious experiences no matter how fleeting, misunderstood or mislabeled. We are unique in how we frame that experience, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared understanding to direct our lives.
We can go the other direction and stay as close to our traditional language as possible, demanding that anyone coming into our religious society’s influence take the time to understand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spreading horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do sometimes) and it also means we threaten to stay a small insider community. We also forget to speak “normal,” start thinking the language really is the experience and start caring more about showing off our vocabulary than about loving God or tending to our neighbors.
I don’t see any good way out of this conundrum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quakerism, speaking differently in public than in private (see this post) but I worry this institutionalizes the snobbery and excuses the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste educators? For want of a better analogy I wonder if there might be a Quaker version of Starbucks (yes yes, Starbucks is Quaker, I’m talking coffee), a kind of movement that would educate seekers at the same time as it sold them the Quaker experience. Could we get people excited enough that they’d commit to the higher costs involved in understanding us?
h3. By Johann Christoph Arnold
“If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you, then, enforce a quarantine? …One option is the use of the military… I think the president ought to have all…assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant.” – President George W. Bush, news conference, October 4, 2005
For years, health officials have warned that a virulent strain of avian influenza could rapidly spread the globe, killing millions. Headlines about such an outbreak now seem to pop up daily, and there is reason for increasing concern. But President Bush’s recent request to Congress, asking for the authority to call in the military as part of the government’s response to such a disaster, is wrong.
To start with, calling in the troops would set a worrying precedent, and not only because it would be yet one more step to a fully militarized state.
We already have public health systems at both the state and federal levels, which, though weakened by years of underfunding, could still be quickly strengthened and expanded by an infusion of congressional aid. These agencies have been operative for years, and the people who direct them are trained and experienced in dealing with infectious disease.
This is more than a medical issue. Have we learned nothing from the recent spate of natural disasters that has wracked our shores? Have we not considered that in the end, disease, pestilence, and floods might be an inescapable part of life?
I am not suggesting that we should stand idly by. I myself have children and grandchildren and friends whom I dearly love, and would be the first to call for professional medical assistance should such a disaster strike my family or community. But aren’t we a little audacious in thinking, in the aftermath of two terrible hurricanes, that we can somehow avert or prevent such a tragedy?
Quarantine and isolation may indeed be a necessary part of our response, but let us not forget that families and pastoral caregivers must also be part of the equation when many people are dying. Does our government really care for human beings, or does it worry more about the devastation such a pandemic could wreak on the global economy?
If widespread death is truly imminent (some sources suggest that 150 million people could die of avian flu) wouldn’t it be better to prepare ourselves by paying at least some attention to the fact that we all must die one day, and that dying is going to be terribly lonely, and frightening, if we are quarantined? We need to concern ourselves with this issue because one day death will claim each one of us.
If we die alone, under the control of the military, who will provide the last services of love for us, and who will comfort the loved ones we leave behind? Are we going to sit back while we are denied the chance to lay down our lives for each other, which Jesus says is the greatest act of love we can ever perform? A military response will not bring out the best in people, but only magnify the fear and anxiety we already have about death.
Why are we so terribly afraid of dying? Only when we are ready to suffer – only when we are ready to die – will we experience true peace of heart. Dying always involves a hard struggle, because we fear the uncertainty of an unknown and unknowable future. We all feel the pain of unmet obligations, and we all want to be relieved of past regrets and feelings of guilt. But it is just here that we can reach out and help one another to die peacefully.
Once we recognize this, the specter of a worldwide flu epidemic will not make us fear death, but give us pause to consider how we can use our lives to show love, while there is still time.
Again, enforced isolation is wrong: sick and dying people are often lonely as it is, even in situations where they have a family and friends. How will they feel when the government forces us to treat them like lepers? How will they find comfort, if they are not even allowed to talk about what is happening to them?
We should see it as a privilege to stand at their bedsides at the hour of death, not a danger – even if this means that we are eventually taken by the same plague. That is why I feel military intervention would be such a tragedy.
A Guest Piece by Jeffrey Hipp
“I take this commitment of membership very seriously – to labor, nurture, support and challenge my fellow Friends; to walk in the Light together, and to give, receive, and pray with my fellow sojourners when the next step is unclear. My feet are on solid ground.”