November 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
In this little series on the joys of the Quaker Way, I have been describing how much joy I have found in the practice of Quaker ministry, from the openings, the leadings, and the ministries that have unfolded since that first opening in Talva Chapin’s living room in 1990.
For me, this process has grown like a tree from that one seed. One opening or leading or ministry has led to another as I followed them up towards the Light.
Thus they all feel to me like one integral whole. The branch that aims toward the east seems to be going in a different direction than the one that aims toward the southwest. But they all spring out of the depths within me, from the Seed planted in the soil of my soul. And they all reach toward the same Light.
This decades-long reaching for the Light, this tree of many branches, this organic synthesis of many promptings of the spirit, produces in me a sense of calling.
- As an opening is momentary and specific and inward;
- as a leading is longer-lasting and still specific but more involved, and outward;
- as a ministry is longer-lasting still and broader yet and both inward and outward;
- so the calling is for the whole lifetime, and of the whole of my spiritual life, and transcendental.
By transcendental, I mean something very hard to express. It doesn’t feel particularly cosmic or absolute, however. It still feels personal and particular to me and to my religious environment. To continue with my metaphor, this transcendent presence is to my spiritual process in ministry much like the local ecosystem is to a tree. There is more to the spiritworld than this little valley where I grow, a whole world—a universe, I suppose.
And maybe some of the birds that come to nest in my tree come from that wider world. But this sense of calling is more intimate than it is cosmic. It is more about the bird than it is about wherever the bird may have came from.
Even so, there is something more to it than just me and my spiritual process and my religious environment. As my frequent readers know, this is my definition of G*d: the Mystery Reality behind or within or beyond our religious experience, whatever that experience is.
I have been recounting my own spiritual and religious experiences. I know that they are real because they have transformed me. I can describe them, up to a certain point. I can craft a clever metaphor. But beyond that point, beyond the images I might use to explain it to you or to myself, lies a Mystery, a transcendence to the Reality. And it calls.
Sometimes the calling actually has a voice and a message, a direct address. But even then, the Voice has never given me a name, as Jesus has to so many Friends I know. I have given it some names, because it does often feel quite personal, and thus, I want a name. And it invites me into a relationship, a covenantal one in which we each make promises, and so it needs a name. I need a name.
But the vast majority of the time, this calling is a sense of calling. This Presence is a sense of presence. This Reality remains a Mystery. All I know is that the ecosystem in which I grow as a spiritual being has soft, indistinct boundaries that lie, for the most part, beyond my ken.
I like to think that the evolutionary processes that carry me and my little ecosystem forward are one with the wider spiritual unfolding of the planet and of the human race. But I can only speculate about that. And I do; it’s fun. I get joy from speculation.
But the deeper joy, the greater joy, the more transforming joy, comes from growing in this little valley called the Quaker way and from trying to make my life an answer to this calling from the Light toward the Light in the Light.
November 22, 2014 § 4 Comments
One more branching—Quakers and capitalism
So I have laid out the general outline of my joyful experience in unfolding of ministry as a Friend. This has followed a pattern:
Openings, the flaring of bright moments of insight that come as gifts of the Holy Spirit, which I experience as moments of joy that are sometimes quite sublime. Furthermore, some of these openings have led to . . .
Leadings, specific tasks laid upon me by G*d that, even when they have become a burden, and sometimes they have, still in their pursuit I have found fulfillment, a sustained joy in knowing what I am to do and joy in the doing of it. And then, blessing upon blessing, sometimes these leadings have given birth to . . .
Ministries, calls to service that are broader in scope, deeper in demand, and longer lasting than individual leadings—and even more fulfilling, more full of the joy of service to the community and to G*d.
There is one more layer to this onion—what I call my calling. But I have one more branch in my personal story to tell, another instance in which a leading and the study it required uncovered a new door into service, a new opening that led to a new leading and then to a new ministry.
The opening. I was rummaging through Pendle Hill’s library—i forget what I was looking for—when I “happened upon” the book of proceedings of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920. This book was in amongst other books related to the other world gatherings. I knew nothing about this first gathering, or any of them, for that matter, so I sat down to read for a while. And here was a new discovery: the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order and accounts of the debates that it evoked at the Conference, plus hints about an even more intense debate at the 1918 London Yearly Meeting sessions.
London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) had convened a Committee on War and the Social Order in 1915 whose charge was to explore the causes of the Great War. It came back to London Yearly Meeting with its final report in 1918, with a thoroughly-thought out critique and the Eight Principles. The Committee blamed the industrial system—capitalism—in part for the war and the first draft of the Eight Principles, which had been watered down in the final draft after they had been sent to the quarterly meetings for consideration, were quite critical of the economic-industrial system of the time. Meanwhile, the Friends receiving the report were captains of industry in the very system being criticized. In a sense, these Friends were criticizing themselves.
The leading. I was hooked. I now wanted to learn everything I could about Quaker attitudes toward the capitalist system, given especially the tremendous wealth of British Friends through the centuries. Soon, I felt led to write a history of Quaker economics—a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, Quaker economic attitudes, and an economic history of the movement. The resulting research and writing became the unfinished book published in installments as the first posts of this blog (available as pdf files from the link in the sidebar to the left labeled Quakers & Capitalism).
It felt so natural. I had already been studying biblical economics for years. Also I worked at the time as the marketing communications person for a high-end speakers bureau that represented many of the most important thought leaders in the business world and many of the world’s first-tier economists. it was my job to know what these people were thinking and writing and saying, and then present it to the business speakers market. So i was learning how the system worked from the inside, while I was simultaneously learning how Jesus had reformed the economic instructions of Torah.
And I discovered that the history itself, of Quakers and capitalism, was not only fascinating but also virtually unknown to Friends. As I like to put it, the industrial revolution would have taken place without Quakers—but it didn’t. Friends developed most of the foundational, indispensable industries, businesses, infrastructure, and financing of the British industrial revolution, and they became fabulously wealthy as a result. Yet almost no Friends I have ever met know much about it. Every time I give a presentation on this material, it blows my audience members’ minds.
The ministry. Then, following the pattern I was used to now, the leading to write this book led to a ministry of teaching about not only our economic history and our contributions to capitalist culture, but also a prophetic ministry of awakening to economic testimony.
We stand in a similar relation to the capitalist system as we do to the prison system—we helped create something that has become a monster. And not only are we nearly oblivious of this relationship; we are weirdly neurotic about it. Our amnesia in this area is very strange for a community so obsessed with its own history, and so proud of it. i feel that the collective consciousness of modern Quakerism is neurotic about money and economics.
My ministry is to explore why this is so and to call Friends to “stand still in the light” until the shadow we live under in this matter burns away, and we come up through the flaming sword into a new relation to money and our economic system, until we are open to G*d’s wish for us regarding the economic system we helped launch.
Meanwhile, however, the openings, the leading to write the book, the ministry of writing and teaching about Quakerism and capitalism—all this has been a ceaseless cascade of passion, discovery—and joy. I thank G*d for it.
November 1, 2014 § 3 Comments
In the course of writing How Long Will the Land Mourn, I ran across a book on the ecology of Palestine and the agricultural practices of the ancient Israelites, which included a description of their agricultural technologies, which were first-of-a-kind revolutionary. This knowledge blew my mind and it connected with some of my previous study to ignite a new ministry founded on a series of ecstatic new openings.
I had already studied the relationship between the religion of ancient Israel in the tribal period and Canaanite religion and mythology. The Canaanites were the indigenous people of Palestine, who spoke and wrote a language very close to ancient Hebrew, but whose religion was a classic Mesopotamian pantheistic “fertility” religion that was focused in its mythos and practice on agriculture, rather than the mostly pastoral tradition that the ancient Israelites brought with them. And it involved a rich religious relationship with the land.
Something clicked when I understood the rudiments of ancient Palestine’s geology, geography, weather, soils, and ecologies. I saw how Canaanite religion had this “earth science” embedded in its DNA. I saw how, under the leadership genius of Moses, an Egyptian court-trained “magician”, the ancient Israelites had adopted and adapted this sacred knowledge of the land to make possible their occupation of the highlands of Palestine as primitive agriculturists. For the highlands of Palestine had been unoccupied for 500 years before the Israelites came—it was just too hard to farm until he showed them how. I saw how this religious “earth science” became part of the DNA of the religion of the Israelites when they finally settled in Israel. I had a glimpse of the very roots of the Judao-Christian tradition—our tradition—in the ecology of the Holy Land.
This launched me into a more thorough and focused study of the origins of ancient Israel and of ecological language in Hebrew scripture. At some point, I began to see this substrate of religious ideas and practice in the gospels, as well, not just in Hebrew scripture. So I refocused my study of the gospels on how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine and what I call spiritual ecology in his own spiritual practice. My questions were these: where did Jesus go in his spiritual practice, what did he do there, and why? The baptism, the testing in the wilderness, the call and teaching of the disciples, the transfiguration, much of his public ministry, many of his “miracles”, the agony in Gethsemane, the ascension—all of these events took place outdoors, mostly in wild places. But not in random places. I believe Jesus chose these places for religious-ecological reasons.
The arc of this learning and understanding and writing has been the most exciting series of openings I have ever had. A lot of it is speculation and I still have a lot of research to do, or redo. But the joy of it has been unparalleled.
This was the breakthrough I had been looking for when I returned to the study of the gospel of Jesus searching the good news about earthcare. But I found, not teachings—I had been looking for teachings—but practice. It was Jesus’ practice that is profoundly revolutionary for us today as earthcare ministers. Jesus had a spiritual relationship with the landscape of his homeland, with the land itself. He modeled for us a form of
- spiritual-religious ecology,
- a land-based spirituality, and
- a religious culture of place.
And he did this because he knew that the land, and especially the wilderness and mountains, were the places in which he was most likely to encounter his Father. Because this had always been the tradition of his people, since even before Moses. Because the Father himself was intimately engaged with the land. A mythologist would probably say that Yahweh was a rain god, among other things—or rather, Elohim was, the other important name for God in ancient Hebrew. But that gets us into an exciting but complex tangent.
Out of these openings, which I plan to share in this blog at some point, grew a fourth ministry, a calling to bring Friends and Christians everywhere back to the model Jesus gave us—to reengage spiritually with our own landscapes, to make the places we live in integral to our religious lives, to develop a new religious culture of place, as he did himself.
This sounds like paganism to some people, I suspect. But there’s a big difference between finding the places where divine revelation is most likely to occur and worshipping in that place—and worshipping the place itself.
Also, for Quakers, the “outwardness” of such a practice is rather foreign to the “inwardness” of traditional Quakerism. Anyone who’s been in a meeting for worship outdoors in a forest knows how difficult it is to center down when the bugs are biting (sooner or later, the gnats always find you), when the seating is primitive and uncomfortable, and when the world around you is so beautifully distracting and often, noisy. Furthermore, at least in my experience, communion with the divine outdoors, especially in the wilderness, invites a much more active participation than just sitting.
I would love to know how Jesus dealt with these things as he and Peter, James, and John centered down before the transfiguration on the mountain; how they centered in prayer on Gethsemane, even “falling asleep” there. Maybe Palestine has fewer bugs.
Anyway, this is my fourth ministry now: writing and speaking and exploring bioregional Quakerism, spiritual reinhabitation of our landbases, spiritual ecology, land-based spirituality, and a Quaker culture of place.
October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
My call to ministry began in 1987, I think. It was the year that Marshall Massey spoke at the FGC Gathering about the need for Friends to pick up an earthcare ministry and he had encouraged meetings to form committees around the concern. Eric Maya Joy and his family came to New York Yearly Meeting from the Gathering that year and I was among a handful of Friends who met with them as they passed on the call. That little group formed a Friends in Unity with Nature task group and began organizing interest groups, workshops, and so on.
In 1990, Buffalo Meeting asked FUN to send them a program for the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, and Ty Griese and I answered that call. On the Saturday night before the program, sitting on Talva Chapin’s Hide-A-Bed, going over my notes and praying, an opening suddenly seized me, a completely different message to give the next morning. In content it was not only completely unexpected; it was a cross to my habits of thought at the time.
It was an idea I later discovered in the work of Matthew Fox: that, if Christ, the Word, the Logos, had created the earth, as the Gospel of John chapter one says, and was in fact one with creation, then destroying the creation was recrucifying Christ. In the course of an hour that Saturday night, this initial insight kept ramifying and expanding and deepening. I literally quaked with its power and the joy and thrill of it.
Buffalo Meeting received this message rather coolly, as I remember. I did not blame them. I had spent the past ten years being hostile to Christianity and to the Bible, myself. I had been harassing Christian Friends in my meeting for their Christ-centered and biblical ministry. I had helped prevent the First Day School from teaching my kids the Bible. And now I was obsessing about the Bible and earth stewardship.
Over the next few weeks, the opening became a floodgate.
I had once known the Bible really well. In Lutheran confirmation class in seventh grade, I had memorized a couple dozen Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount in both Matthew and Luke, 1 Corinthians 13, dozens of individual passages, and virtually all of Luther’s Small Catechism. But only snatches came to me related to earthcare. I didn’t know enough. Yet a message was struggling to be born of what little knowledge I had.
Increasingly, I felt compelled—impelled—to write a book about earth stewardship. The impulse would not go away. It did not yield to my long-practiced hostility toward the Bible or the arguments i had been rehearsing for years against what I perceived to be its message and worldview. I could not ignore it.
In fact, this impulse rekindled my original adolescent love of the Bible. I found myself rehearsing the creation story in my head, thinking, “This is where I must start. I wonder what this story really means . . . “
I gave in. I surrendered to the seduction of the years of focused study that I knew this project required. I bought a study Bible, then another one. I paid for borrowing privileges at Princeton Theological Seminary library.
I felt that, if the Christian world could be convinced of the religious imperative to care for the earth, we could turn the corner as a planet. There were so many Christians, so many congregations, that it would only take a small critical mass to begin a worldwide revolution. But I felt that the Christian world would not listen unless the message came from Scripture.
I felt compelled to find that message, articulate it, and share it. I was going to write a book about earth stewardship, a work of biblical eco-theology. I had a leading.