Archive for June, 2011

Led? By whom?

“Jenny, I don’t know if Mama was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan…I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze… but I think…maybe it’s both. Maybe both are happening at the same time…”–Eric Roth, Forrest Gump (1994)

We all have our spiritual texts, those artistic creations that speak to us, that rise unbidden to our minds at the appropriate times, giving advice or solace in our need. For some, it’s the Bible, the Quran, the Hindu Vedas. For some it might be Timothy Leary’s reworking of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For me, it’s a lot of sources: Bible passages, movies I’ve found particularly uplifting (see above), books like Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (which is illustrated nicely on YouTube here.), songs. I take my flashes of Spirit where I find them. Lately I’ve been ruminating on this one. The words I’ve quoted are from the screenplay; I have no idea if the line or its approximation appears in Winston Groom’s original novel. Regardless of the source, the words resonate with me at the core right now. Here I stand, perplexed at the universe, pondering this same question.

For me, the question of Fate versus chance starts with a cosmology that rejects sentient divinity. I believe in a divine force; I’ve felt its work in the world. But I don’t believe it works consciously, directed by some conscious, omnipotent being. My conception of the Divine is sort of Star Wars-y, an underlying force out of which all manifestations flow, and into which all must eventually return. No other conceptions of the Divine resonate true within me. I don’t judge those who can believe and take comfort in a Great Planner; all I know is that is not in my nature to do so. Rejecting a Divine Planner, one must by extension reject a Divine Plan. And yet…

And yet, I am addicted to narrative. From an early age, I scribbled stories on the leftover spreadsheet paper my father brought home from the machine shop where he worked. Now, as one point along my journey reaches its conclusion and another begins dimly to be seen, I find myself looking backward, constructing a through-line of cause and effect. And, at times, the sense of having been precisely where I was supposed to be is palpable.

After nearly a solid week of cross-country travel courtesy of Greyhound (a perfect lesson in letting go of the need to control), I found myself in Boston on Sunday. I had heard about Beacon Hill Friends Meeting through a friend, and resolved to spend my hour of silent worship there.

Meeting itself was not particularly noteworthy for me. I center more easily when I can feel connected to those around me, and here were only strangers; I struggled to find a comfortable position on the wooden benches. The messages that morning were worthwhile but not ground-shaking. Had I recently moved to town and been in the process of seeking a new spiritual home, I would probably have resolved to try somewhere else next week, searching for that indefinable pull that leads us home.

The magic came after the Rise of Meeting. During social hour, I was introduced to two Friends in the early planning stages of a possible Quaker intentional community/farm in New Hampshire. My heart has been feeling tugs in that directly already, so these connections were exciting and affirming even if nothing tangible develops from them. Over coffee and cookies, I also learned there would be a lecture that afternoon, touching on issues within the convergent Friends movement. Since the subject appealed to my interest in what Friend Tony terms “multifaith polylogue,” I decided to stick around. I don’t know if another choice was possible for me then, but I can’t shake the sense that the choice I made was the right one.

The speaker was Peggy Senger Parsons, pastor of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon (!!!), a dynamic individual with what seemed to me to be a clear sense of the Spirit (in spite of being one of those scary evangelical Christian Quakers!   ^_~). Her words provoked new thinking, but also fall into line with a lot of my recent thinking about faith, about our culture, and about how to use the former to transform the latter. I left Beacon Hill with a gait somewhere between a skip and a stagger, partly elated, partly awe-struck by the possibilities I was beginning to sense. I made my way through the streets of Boston further convinced in the rightness of striking out in new directions and in the potential for bridging theological gaps even of immense distance. It can be done, if we keep in mind John Woolman’s description of that “principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names….confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any.”

On my way back to the T, my mind raced over the past two years, and even earlier, when the seeds that led me to Quakers were first planted. I can tick off event after event that seem to lead in direct progression to Sunday’s experiences. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult not to see this chain of events as pre-ordained, rungs on the ladder of my destiny. Fate.

My glimpses into the future are imperfect at best. Those times in the past when I was dead sure that I was headed in a particular direction, that A would lead to B would lead eventually to Z, have been the times when the Universe has thrown me a wicked curveball, throwing me in some unexpected new direction. Part of me is galvanized by the idea that this might somehow really be meant to be. There’s an undeniable urge to cling to that. Part of me aches to think that this plotline, too, will prove illusory. Yet part of me looks toward the approaching horizon in anticipation, eager to explore the ways that these new experiences will influence the next leg of my journey.

Be quiet.


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I have no idea how long I’ll keep this up. I suppose I’m starting on this venture because I’ve really enjoyed reading blogs by other Friends lately, and want to add my own perspective to the mix. In part, this is me fumbling with the challenge of letting my life speak my convictions. I’ve been feeling an electric urge to do something meaningful with my faith since reading Robert Lawrence Smith’s Book of Quaker Wisdom. But what? There’s the rub.

Two years ago, I boarded a plane in Burlington, Vermont, bound for Portland, Oregon. With me were two suitcases and a worn-out backpack, their contents the only possessions I was bringing on my journey. My ticket was one-way. I had no job waiting for me, and only two contacts in the Rose City: a friend from college who would let me crash on her couch for two days, and a cousin I could contact if I didn’t find a place to live in those two days. I hadn’t seen this cousin since I was ten or so…

Looking back now, it’s hard to remember exactly who I was at the start of that journey, what my expectations were. I know I never expected to grow into the person that I am daily becoming. I never expected to find a spiritual home, or to fall in love with so many people, myself included. The first Sunday that I ventured into the meetinghouse that would become my meetinghouse, I had no idea that I would come to call myself a Quaker. I only knew that my previous experiences with Friends worship suited my spiritual sensibilities far better than the fundamentalist Christian church my cousin’s family attended. Over the past two years, that meeting has become my Meeting, that community has become my community.

I’m leaving Monday, headed back to Vermont. The reasons are in part familial: both sisters are getting married this summer; my oldest niece graduates from high school Father’s Day weekend. My youngest niece turned a year old in April—I have yet to see her outside of pictures. There are other reasons, too, ones less easily ticked off in a list. I’m happier in a climate with four distinct seasons; as Robbie Robertson said, I got winter in my blood. But more than that, there’s the undeniable pull that one’s home can have—these are my towns, my roads, my people, the stone out of which my foundation was formed. Part of going back is that magnetic attraction, the acknowledgment that when I close my eyes, it’s most often the rural landscape of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I see flickering in the dark. Part of it is also a test, not of myself so much as of my memories and their relationship to reality: immersed again in the world of my adolescence, will I still feel at home? Or have I evolved in two years into someone for whom the pull is no longer there? I’m standing at a point in my journey where the road curves sharply around a corner a hundred feet ahead. There’s no way to tell what lies on the other side except to keep walking, and to have faith that I’m walking neither off a cliff-face nor into the path of a starving, rabid bear. Understandably, I’m approaching the corner with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.

I can’t deny, either, that part of me isn’t ready to leave. Two years is a long time to spend with a community, witnessing triumphs and griefs, pettiness and unbelievable tenderness…I have come to love these people dearly, and to know without question that I, too, am loved. In worship last Sunday I found myself remembering the passage in Matthew, when a disciple informs Jesus that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside:

But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!” (Matthew 12:48-9, New American Standard Bible)

There are two kinds of families: the one you’re born with, and the one you build for yourself. Over two years, I have built a family within my meeting, one that matters as much to me as the one to which I’m returning. I’m not the person I was when I arrived at PDX that night in ’09. My Quaker family understands this; they’ve been along for the ride (members of our YAF group especially). My biological family, however, has only seen hints of the transformation. The person coming to them is not the person who left, not the person they’re expecting. The family that knows me is here.

A friend recently suggested that the proper Quaker goodbye ought to be “Be quiet.” This idea appeals to me not only because of the obvious ties to Quaker worship, but also because it calls to mind Rumi’s plea:

Let me be quiet
in the middle of this noise.

I can think of no sweeter wish between Friends as they part: be still and calm in the chaos of life; feel the connection to the divine within your center even in the midst of hardship and confusion.

Be quiet.