Magnetic center as a point of growth

I think it was in Peter Ouspensky’s writing that I came across the concept. He argued that having a foundation in  an activity that requires patience and long training is essential for anyone hoping to grow in spirituality.

Simply put, practicing an art, a sport, a craft, a trade, or the like provides the stamina for personal religious enhancement. He called it the magnetic center.

It’s not a passive pleasure but rather active, with deferred gratification in terms of results. It requires doing something for its own nature rather than some final event or production, even though such things might provide inspiration. What’s important is the means itself rather than the end.

These other activities aren’t a substitute for spiritual progress, which can come about by undertaking any number of tested traditions, but it does offer a solid starting point.

Maybe there are exceptions, but I still find it an interesting insight.

What do you love to do as a disciplined practice?

 

Ten ways faith communities are being hit hard

The Covid-19 shutdowns are reminding many of us how much of religious practice involves community interaction.

Yes, personal practice is also essential – we could easily build a list of ten examples – but it blossoms and bears fruit in our interactions.

Here are ten ways those are being impacted by coronavirus.

  1. Communal worship. It’s a coming together in celebrating and compassion. For now, we’re coping with a substitute, one without the touches of shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. We’re not even in the same room.
  2. Streaming our services. Across congregations, we’re finding this to be a mixed bag. It’s definitely not the same as being together in person, but members who live at a distance or recovering from illness or suffering chronic debilitating conditions are welcoming the opportunity to be better connected again. Attendance for morning vespers or the like is also up.
  3. Pastoral visits. Hospitals, especially. Pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, and other leaders deeply miss being able to comfort those in pain or be with those who are dying, especially.
  4. Funerals and memorial services. On hold, when family and friends could feel the support the most.
  5. Weddings. Baptisms, too?
  6. Choirs. It’s more than just making harmony together, though you do come to feel a special kinship with your fellow singers.
  7. Committees. OK, we are continuing via Zoom, maybe more than ever. But it’s more awkward, and I miss sharing the snacks.
  8. Study groups. This can be done online, but it’s less personally revealing and interactive.
  9. Church suppers and soup kitchens. There’s a reason that Jesus and the disciples are always eating in the New Testament. As one rabbi I know explains, it’s because they were Jewish. Let’s honor our connections through food, when we can.
  10. Festivals and other fundraisers. These require advance planning and working together. Again, food’s often involved and sometimes ethnic identities, too. My favorite ones feature dancing, and that leads to joining hands.

I do want to mention a renewed appreciation for the medieval tradition of anchorites, women who lived in isolation in the church tower itself and prayed unceasingly for the members’ well-being. These days, their writings seem especially meaningful.

OK, there’s no bingo on my list. What else am I missing?

For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.

 

Ten things to look forward to in ‘normal’

To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.

Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.

Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.

  1. Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
  2. Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
  3. Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
  4. Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
  5. Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
  6. Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
  7. Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
  8. Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
  9. Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
  10. Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.

Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.

What are you especially missing these days?

 

Ten things I like about being Quaker

Coming to join the Society of Friends, or Quakers, puts me in a unique religious circle.

Here are ten examples.

~*~

  1. Nobody bosses me around. Well, not if the mutual discipleship we know as eldering is conducted in a loving and good order. In the old days, though, it was often quite restricting.
  2. Deep roots. We have a rich history, originating in the mid-1600s social and political upheavals in Britain, and a distinctive lifestyle to draw on for inspiration. Yes, lifestyle. While most Friends have dropped the distinctive Plain clothing and speech, we do hew to simplicity, honesty, integrity, equality, and non-violence in our daily lives. There are good reasons many modern Quakers drive a Prius.
  3. Mystical renewal. The core of Quaker worship is open worship, which is part of even pastoral Friends’ services, admittedly in a shortened form. In the traditional “silent” worship, it can be an hour of profound group meditation and rejuvenated awareness of the Holy Spirit.
  4. The timeless aesthetic. I hate to admit there were times in Quaker history where the restrictions would have been unbearable for me. But I am drawn to the witness that arose in it as demonstrated in the architecture of our old meetinghouses or the accounts of tender family life or the amazing prose of the ministry.
  5. Room to keep growing. Quaker faith is multifaceted. Spiritually, one can move about from Bible study to prayer to silent reflection to “mutual irradiation” with other faith traditions and back. Socially, there are many ways to serve within the congregation – in fact, volunteer service is crucial to the existence of the Meeting and the wider world of Friends. On top of that, our faith draws us to public witness, especially in matters of peace, equality, environmental action, and the like.
  6. We have only three degrees of separation – not seven. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find answers through Meeting connections.
  7. It’s my core community. Here are my kindred spirits, the people I respect and treasure.
  8. I have friends nearly everywhere. When I go to a new place, I quickly connect through Quaker Meeting – even if I’m just visiting. In fact, Friends in Cuba and Kenya open my eyes to Third World awareness.
  9. My family history and lost identity. When I joined Friends, I had no idea my father’s side had been Quaker from the outbreak of the movement right up to the 20th century. Reclaiming that identity gives me an internal perspective.
  10. Social justice issues. There’s no way I can address all of the world’s ills, but it is comforting to know that Friends are tackling key issues and deserve my support.

~*~

What do you like about your own path of faith?

Christos Anesti!

For the Eastern Orthodox, today ushers in 40 days of Pascha, or Easter. It’s not a one-day event, but the joyous response to Great Lent, culminating in the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost.

The center of the ceiling in an Eastern Orthodox house of worship typically displays a large icon of Christ Pantocrator, or Ruler of the Universe. Here is the image from Annunciation Greek Orthodox church in Dover, with four angels and what I presume are the authors of the four gospels. Every time I look up at that face, the thought arises, “I could follow that man.”

Why fundamentalist Christians prefer the King James translation

It’s less intelligible to the modern ear.

OK, that’s the flip retort, but it’s true. The King James Version of the Bible sounds truly remote and incomprehensible to most Americans, and I suspect that’s part of the appeal, the way Latin used to be for Roman Catholics.

I’ve tried to teach our teens in Meeting how to use the “thee” and “thou” that are so much a part of traditional Quaker expression, but find the kids are completely baffled. The 17th century language is the core of the KJV, too. Take note.

But as those fluent with Hebrew remark, the KJV is also full of mistranslations, some of them deeply ingrained in our English language and thinking.

We can blame one of the characters in my upcoming book The Secret Side of Jaya for that translation problem, since the KJV (more officially known as the Authorized Version) drew heavily from his English renderings. That’s something that could lead to an arcane debate we’ll not get into today.

As for me, I’d prefer cracking the nut open, using as many different translations as possible, making the events all the more astonishing.

You’re welcome to check out what I’ve been examining in my reading of the Bible straight through at my blog As Light Is Sown.

But first, in recognition of today’s celebration, Happy Easter.

Even a local ‘soup kitchen’ suffers under Covid restrictions

My Quaker Meeting is part of two local ecumenical groups, one of them providing free twice-a-week community suppers for people in need. Our dinner guests are the homeless, especially, and others living in subsidized housing, but nobody asks questions as we welcome anyone who simply shows up. Each congregation cooks and serves its own menu on a monthly rotation. We Quakers do barbecued chicken thighs, mashed potatoes, and cole slaw, with pulled pork as the previous feature. Hey, it’s yummy and something nearly everyone likes. I love the rare times we have leftovers.

Even though the event is commonly called a soup kitchen, none of us serve soup anymore. The term simply points back to the tradition’s origins. The Methodists do lasagna. The Greek Orthodox do American chop suey and Greek salad. You get the idea.

So when our hosts at the Episcopal church decided to close their hall during the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, a concern for the dinner’s guests led to an exemption. The various congregations could still use the kitchen, but all the food would be takeout, something restaurants were later also ordered to do, while sit-down dining was prohibited.

It’s not the same, of course. We’re getting less than half of the turnout, but many are asking for two meals, to share with others, as well as an extra for the next day. So we’re happily dishing out about the same amount of food.

What we’re really missing is the community interaction. Many of the regulars enjoyed this as a time to socialize without having to spend precious cash on a place to sit. Better yet, this place was free of alcohol. Many would come early and stay till closing time, when an AA group prepared for its own meeting.

Another factor in shifting to takeout is that many of the volunteers are retirees in a Covid-19 susceptible range. Many of them are staying self-isolated, reducing the pool of workers. Usually, with everyone on board, it’s a kind of party, but when everything falls on just a few, things can be stressful. We’ll see.

But I do wonder if that’s what tipped one congregation to call in some caterers. That, or a desire to help our suffering local restaurants, too.

One other influence to consider is transportation. Our region is served by two public bus systems, both of them shut down by the coronavirus, and that may be keeping some of the regulars from getting to the church social hall.

What similar sorts of adjustments are you seeing where you live?

If one approach doesn’t work, here’s another

The Bible often offers multiple versions, often sharply contrasted, as if knowing that we, as humans, will keep thinking and asking this and that without seeing the fuller picture behind words and our preconditioned concepts.

These versions say, in effect, “OK, you don’t accept that one, you don’t get it, so how about taking the matter from this angle?” Sometimes the facts or accounts even contradict themselves, especially in details, to get us to start questioning our assumptions. The whole point, I sense, is that ultimately the issue is unanswerable, along the lines of the conclusion of Job’s struggle. You just have to look at it in utter awe.

In an approach that says in effect, “OK, you didn’t understand this story, now try this one,” seems to assume, “You’re going to keep asking questions, thinking, circling, so let’s short-circuit that flow,” because much of what’s really at hand is beyond logic. No wonder in the big Job scene, God finally erupts in righteous indignation.

Quite simply, there are many times where words just can’t convey an awareness of the infinite. Or even a fleeting sunset. Or hope or love.

What can you think of that goes far beyond the ability of words to express fully?

 

Got any favorite books of the Bible?

My As Light Is Sown blog is running a weekly commentary on my experience and thoughts arising in reading the Bible straight-through, from Genesis to Revelation. It’s a wildly varied collection of writings.

But if I’d have to pick my top ten books? Here’s a stab.

  1. Gospel of John: I’m intrigued by a counterargument running through the text that identifies Christ as the Holy Spirit more than Jesus. You’ll have to wait for the post to see my reasoning. The book is also called the “Quaker gospel,” giving me an extra interest.
  2. Genesis: It’s a bang-bang-bang way to begin the chronology, with human desires and conflicts at the fore, even that far back in antiquity. Much of the book would make a great soap opera, but for me, it’s more primal and fundamental than that. Although it often seems to be a telling of patriarchy, keep an eye on the women. And don’t blame Eve when the ball starts rolling.
  3. The Psalms: This collection of heartfelt poems, many of them written anonymously in the guise of King David, span a range of deep emotion. They’re rich enough that the Eastern Orthodox read six in their entirety each Sunday – the same six.
  4. Ruth: The whole story explodes into fullness on a single word – Moabite. But what an incredible love story.
  5. Song of Songs: This is an incredible poem of illicit love. Forget the argument about it’s being an allegory about divine concern and all that. What is religion without passion? Leave it at that.
  6. Esther: Again, a complex soap opera is unleashed here. The bad guys don’t get any worse. By the way, “chamberlains” in the King James translation masks a bigger meaning – they’re eunuchs, who play a surprisingly big role throughout the Hebrew Bible.
  7. Revelation: Read this as poetry, not dystopian doom or a blueprint for human destruction.
  8. Ezekiel: I was surprised by how psychedelic this book is. Whoa!
  9. Tobit: The Apocrypha, not included in most Protestant or Hebrew Bibles, has some lovely stories. This is one. Like Susannah, also from the collection, it tells of injustice, suffering, and ultimate redemption.
  10. Epistle of James: The epistles, most of them attributed to Paul, are a specialty unto themselves. As the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Essenes, though, James has special authority.

~*~

What would you add to the list?