RECOVERING WHAT HAD BEEN LEFT UNSAID

Decades ago, faced with a question of just what Friends believe, I embarked on an exploration that might provide a more inclusive answer than “Some believe this …” or “Most do that …”

To the surprise of many, the Religious Society of Friends does have a rich underlying theology, one so radical our First Publishers of Truth (one of the original names for the Quaker movement) couldn’t voice it in its fullness in the earliest years before settling into a system of practice rather than fully pursuing its intellectual implications.

Call it an alternative Christianity if you will, but even Friends need to understand its dimensions.

~*~

For more, check out my essays, Religion Turned Upside Down.

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JUST LIKE MEETING BUDDHA ON THE ROAD

When it comes to the image generated by my newest book’s title, Religion Turned Upside Down, I’d like to think that a lot of the arguments against that religion are also tossed over.

Considering many of my earlier postings on spiritual practice, you might be surprised how many of those objections I agree with. I do, however, think there are more viable alternatives for deep religious grounding, ones more attuned to intellectual advances of our times, ones that leap ahead to the future.

Gives everyone a chance to start afresh, considering what might matter most in life, doesn’t it?

Or, as others have noted, every atheist has a god he doesn’t believe in. And then there are matters of action.

Sometimes it helps to get all that out of the way to get clear, as in Light.

~*~

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

FROM QUAINT TO THE FRAY

When the Quaker movement emerged amid the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, its followers relied on three powerful, interlocking concepts – the Light, the Truth, and the Seed. While the blasphemy laws of the time precluded an open examination of the full implications of their experience, the early Quakers left enough evidence to allow contemporary spiritual seekers to recover the revolutionary scope of their vision, in thought and daily life. There’s nothing quaint in this view of Quaker life and action. What unfolds is likely to startle not only their spiritual heirs but also Christians and non-Christians of many different belief systems alike. Along the way come confrontations and stimulation to deepen individual and community faith and practice.

To draw from Zen teaching – Right Thought (or teaching) leads to Right Practice (or action) leads to Right Wisdom – I see the insights of my book Religion Turned Upside Down as vital to addressing the vast challenges facing humanity. Period.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down
Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

RENEWED FAITH IN THE FUTURE

Unlike my usual Quaker Practice postings here on the Red Barn, my newest book probes into the underlying theology that made the Society of Friends an alternative Christianity – one without priests or clergy, creeds and dogma, ritual or liturgy but shaped lives based in faithful simplicity, equality, peace, and pursuit of justice.

In Religion Turned Upside Down, metaphor, not law, is the foundation of spiritual expression and religious practice. As metaphors, when the central images of the Light, Seed, and Truth – in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings – are embraced as verbs rather than static nouns, a radical realignment occurs.

While conventional religion finds itself more and more relegated to the sidelines of Western society, what appears within the reconstructed Quaker paradigm – one that could not be voiced fully under the prohibitions of the blasphemy acts – now aligns with new insights from the frontier of intellectual discovery. Crucially, it provides support for alternatives to the great threats to human existence as well – environmental, nuclear, military, economic, political, social, racial.

It’s a basis for hope and action rather than despair.

~*~

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

SHAKEN AND STIRRED

Read closely, the Bible itself critiques conventional religion, including Christianity. The arguments in my new release, Religion Turned Upside Down, build on these, especially as they shape the early Quaker movement as it arises in a period in English history known as “the world turned upside down.” What emerges is a continuing outline for a revolutionary alternative Christianity that springs from the interlocking spiritual metaphors of Light, Seed, and Truth, which frequently appear in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down
Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

WITHIN A SHIFTING FOCUS

Envisioning a grouping of my poems under the umbrella of Exposure, I initially drew on the photographic sense of admitting light to a sensitized film or plate, and then watching the image take form and density in stages on white paper in the developing bath in the darkroom – admittedly, now, obsolete practices, supplanted by the much less technically demanding use of digital cameras. (With all of its own advance technical dimensions.)

The title survived even though the contents kept shifting until settling on what now appears in the middle section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag.

At first, this was to be a set of micropoems – brief, flickering revelations akin to snapshots – especially of the kind my Uncle John Orr calls “mockery photography.” Or, better yet, multiple exposures, with their overlapping actions. But those works scuttled elsewhere, where they’ve seemed to fit better.

In their place came Treated for Exposure, a grouping of pieces originating in wilderness encounters. In the backcountry, individuals who are caught unprepared in sharp downturns of the weather may require rescue and even hospitalization, where they are reported being “treated for exposure” – dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, and the like. Again, those works drifted elsewhere, where they seemed to fit better.

What remained was a sequence of tenacious afterimages leading to a third route, though still not the final round.

Like most Americans today, my exposure to the outdoors, much less wilderness, has come in flashes – an hour or two, a day or even a week, typically chosen for fair conditions or else domestic tasks, such as weeding, mowing the grass, or shoveling snow. (As for “unfair” conditions, the lessons can be harsh and unforgettable, yet opening lessons of essential understanding – life is fragile, after all, and above all else, keep dry or get dry, quickly. I must wonder how many who have faced death in these situations return to the trail with a deepened sense of awe and respect, as well as caution.) Once again, in the end, the exposure is fleeting, caught in a flash of time and incomplete observation – something transformed or vanished in the flick of an eyelid. Even so, it is possible to approach these experiences as a pilgrim, acknowledging there is much to absorb here, as well as profound renewal and revival. A sense of humility helps, as well, for even skilled outdoorsmen find a wrong turn can become life-threatening. We come back to what is essential and timeless. In the rush of modern society, I require grounding and rooting, which these ageless places give back to me.

In a leap, this led to an exploration of something I thought I’d avoided – poems about poetry and poets. Generally, I’ve long had an aversion to art about art: movies about musicians or writers (or, worse yet, university English departments), and the closer they get to their own field, the more incestuous the practice commonly feels. Yet there are marvelous exceptions, leading me to question my original premise. Perhaps it arises in the newsroom dictum of getting as far out into the field as possible to get the best story: out on the street, where a council vote has impact, rather than in City Hall or the Mayor’s office, for instance, or out into the battlefront rather than safely ensconced in the Pentagon. (Admittedly, yes, after decades as a journalist, I have written that newsroom novel, my Hometown News.) Perhaps it is also a recognition and desire that writers speak to and with a larger audience or readership than other writers only. And it is definitely with an awareness that artists are not a special class of Genius, one needing apology or explanation or reverence as some type of Holy Order, at that. Ultimately, art is what we do, like prayer, regardless of the outcome or our reasons.

Like prayer, our practice embodies a host of assumptions and approaches: pages from a Book of Common Prayer, at one end, to the wordless Pentecostal outpouring of glossolalia, often called (erroneously) “praying in tongues,” at the other. It can give voice as communion, adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, or intercession – and more, to say nothing of the range of our individual vocabulary, concepts, and situations. Such as sex.

In a leap, too, a dual awareness arises. The act of allowing the Other to expose its secrets to us – whether as a backcountry trail to a mountaintop, a lover, or the Divine – also demands that we also become vulnerable. We, too, are exposed, often unintentionally, in our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and sins, our pride and shame. In this state of exposure, we are permitted to observe as long as we ourselves are being observed. The photographer enters the picture; the poet, no matter how carefully concealed, still enters the poem. The musician becomes the music. Truth demands honesty that can be painful and healing.

I think of my poems that arise from experiences while spending a week in a cabin in the Maine woods to twists in particular trails in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, or Pennsylvania; the Florida Everglades; the Cascade Range of Washington state and northern California; or the Appalachian foothills of upstate New York or southern New Hampshire. Others, from family or lovers or friends and coworkers.

In the end, then, we, too, may be treated for exposure. Treated, but not tricked.

For the moment, let’s toy with the scarab – the beautiful jewel or the moving beetle. One, to my mind, will point to the other.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

PREPARING THE BODY FOR ETERNITY

Paradoxically, to meditate on death and dying, as I do in the poems of Shroud, the final section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag, is to consider life itself in its manifold opportunities. The blessings of teachers and mentors, guides and ancestors, family and friends all spring forth.

Hearing that the Amish, who dress in plain dark colors in the humility of their lives, are clothed in a bright white shroud upon death startled me. A shroud? It’s something I’ve come to appreciate over time, especially as an alternative to a coffin or casket or any of the usual funeral industry practices. A shroud fits into the simplicity of green burial endorsed by my Quaker meeting’s burial ground policies.

A shroud, too, has a shape like the ancient Egyptian scarab, celebrated for its ability to venture into the underworld and return to the air. I’m fond of the leap that suggests.

~*~

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag
Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.