heart-opening Quaker meeting

(January 10, 2016) It is First Day, Sunday, Quaker meeting. Today is his first visit to my holy place, my sacred ground. Only a couple of people are in the meeting room when we arrive and there is something so vulnerable and intimate about that. I’ve learned by now that when I bring friends here I can take no responsibility for the quality of their worship. There is no way I can relieve their boredom if they are bored – though it turns out they are generally not bored and enjoy the silent experience. So today, I trust him to settle in, and I take note of who is present, gaze out the window. Then I turn my eye inward, shut my eyelids, open my hands to God.

This past semester, every meeting was a challenge, my inner demons attacking me after my first ten minutes of silence. I couldn’t sit still – well, I did sit still, but inside, I was a mess, a thousand monkeys ricocheting in my  monkey brain.

Lately, though, I have been full of peace and joy. I am this way today, sinking into something deep, wondering if anyone else is experiencing today’s meeting how I am, wondering what it feels like to be in what they call a “gathered meeting” and how I might find out. Is this one gathered? I am gathered, at any rate. My heart is open to the world, open to other people. I remember when I was not this way. It was most of my life. I used to be so closed off, so guarded, so walled. So afraid. Who am I now? How am I this different from the girl I once was? Today, my open heart overflows with love, and I want everyone else here to experience this as well.

The children file in at the end and my wish for them is that they may remain open-hearted, that the world will not close them off and that they will stay light and free. I hope they still are: when I was their age, I was not.

Heart-opening exercises in yoga have got nothing on this Quaker meeting, for me. Sit, breathe, expand, love.  

NMCF outside

(Picture taken from my meeting’s [North Meadow Circle of Friends] Facebook page… thanks, guys!)

Religious Refugee: Why I’m not home yet

I was talking with some Quakers recently, and they agreed that “we tend to collect a lot of religious refugees.”

That’s a kind of neat way to say something that is probably true, I thought to myself, not yet thinking that was one of those religious refugees.

When asked about my faith tradition, I usually offer a run-on sentence something like, “Well, I was raised in the evangelical nondenominational tradition, but I have wandered from that and my faith has been liberalizing since college, and I usually go to a Quaker church now, but sometimes I go to a UU church” [the last part I may add depending on whether or not I’ve decided if my listener can accept the fact that I have attended a UU church].

And though (again, depending) my listener may not feel too comfortable with that, I do feel fine with the religion, or lack thereof, that I have settled into. I don’t feel any animosity towards the tradition I came out of, and I have made peace inside and out regarding my past. I’m “there,” right? I’m not a refugee. I’m not wandering in the desert wishing I could just go home. I may not be in the promised land, but I’m totally peaceful about where I am.

Wait a minute. Or am I?

Then why am I so defensive if I perceive that someone thinks I don’t take spirituality seriously? Why do I still feel the need, or desire, to qualify that I still do spiritual practices even if my church setting today looks very different from what I came out of?

Why, even though I accept in myself that I cannot speak the “evangelical language” (Jesus as son of God, Lord, or Savior; repenting for my sins; being ‘saved’) with a sense of integrity or wholeness, does my throat constrict and heart beat a little faster when someone speaks it to me? Why do I think that they are somehow trying to proselytize me even when I know that they know me well enough to probably accept me as I am?

Why do I feel such a strong need to “prove myself” with knowledge of biblical scholarship or theological issues (not that I know all that much, but enough to “puff up” dangerously depending on my context!), or become offended when someone thinks I must not know very much about these things because I’m “just” a counseling student or I’m not in a denomination? (and is there something going on besides a general desire / prideful need to feel “smart”?)

Why do I still sometimes cry when I cannot take communion or when I feel I have lost a major point of contact with someone so close to me?

Like many others, I too love reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog. (Here is her latest post about heart-breakingly deciding to leave the evangelical position because she is exhausted of trying to force it to change: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/what-now-world-vision). I love what Christians who are passionate about Jesus, the Bible, social justice, community, and loving people talk about and do when they are together. So much so that I sometimes pine to be one of them again. But I can’t. I appreciate their outcomes, but I cannot join them. I’ve been told: “You’re more of a Christian than most Christians I know!” But I’m not. I care about God, I deeply want to be in touch with God, I want to be the person God (whoever/whatever God is) created me to be, I care about social justice, I care about doing the right thing. I have some sense of mission and purpose. Those things do not make me a Christian.

Honest, I have found some good, lovely things in the communities I’ve wandered to. Quakers are notorious for being forerunners and prophetic in social justice issues- the earliest activists in the anti-slavery movement, and are now (from what I’ve observed) very vocal and pro-active about saving the earth from human destruction through climate change. They also are raising awareness about the new systematic racism occurring in our criminal justice system (“The New Jim Crow” is a book I’m intending to read). I’ve pitched my tent next to the Quakers, hoping that I can set up a sturdier structure in there one day. Maybe I am waiting for them to clear out some square footage and give me a personal invitation to build. And some UUs that I’ve met are not only socially aware but even manage to get out of their intellectualizing heads and do spiritual practices. (sorry if I’m offending anyone…the pool I have to draw from is limited.)

But considering the ways I still react to encounters I have in the Christian world, maybe I am something of a religious refugee. No one kicked me out of Christendom- I kicked myself out, over a gradual process. I listened to myself, I listened to what I learned, I listened to what makes sense and what my intuition told me may be possible. I did not necessarily listen to what people told me I could or should believe. And I probably won’t go “home” again, if “home” means returning to my roots. “Home” is someplace else, and sometimes I’m still trying to figure out what my new mailing address will be.

I need to reference a book I’ve read at least once per post , so here it is for today: James Fowler wrote about 6 stages of faith in a book aptly named Stages of Faith. Stage 4 is the intellectualizing, doubting stage, where you no longer believe any of the “myths” you once did and you rely on the rationality of your mind. Stage 5, on the other hand, is often a return “home” to a religious tradition (often the one you were raised in, in some form [perhaps with a conservative->liberal shift], but maybe a whole new one), able to see it with new eyes, with symbolization, with an understanding of something universal found in the particularities of your faith- and that somehow, that universalism must be expressed through particularism. By the “particular,” I mean the idea that to be spiritually rooted, we must practice in communities and hold actual beliefs and be accountable to others and God.

I think I’m somewhere in the middle (perhaps we can call it 4.5). I don’t rely only on my intellectual, rational capabilities to figure out faith. I believe in and crave mystical, contemplative experiences of God. I believe in the universalism of the particularity in my head, if not always in my heart. But I haven’t yet figured out how to non-defensively interact with – to be specific – the evangelical tradition from which I came. How to truly, deeply understand the universal aspects of their particularism in a loving, compassionate, humble (HUMBLE!!) way.

So for now, I suppose I am a religious refugee. Who knows when I will truly reach my Canaan. Canaan, for me, is more of a state of mind and heart than an actual location. I will take shelter in the Quaker tradition for the time being, which may include the rest of my life. There, I will wait until my heart softens enough to embrace with lovingkindness all traditions, even that one that I secretly harbor some kind of resentment towards, because I’m not a part of it any longer. In the land of Canaan, I have a soft, humble heart. I hear with open ears and believe beyond what is possible. I see that of God in everyone and everything.

Somewhere, maybe on the horizon and coming into view, my Canaan awaits.