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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  1. #1 by Ashley W on June 18, 2011 - 1:58 am

    I’m glad to see that you are blogging and thrilled that you got to see my pastor in Boston! Blessings on your journey.

  2. #2 by peggy Parsons on June 20, 2011 - 1:33 am

    Dear Ethan,

    I am grateful for your gait! I see a Quaker Jack Sparrow heading for the T. I smile. Unction is sooo heady!

    That someone should end up on a cross country bus trip and then listen to a message I was given is both unbelievable and exactly what should happen. My Bus Karma is legendary. It is so powerful that it could indeed rub off. If you haven’t read the bus stories on my blog, both African and American, you might enjoy them. Here is one; http://sillypoorgospel.blogspot.com/2008/12/my-bus-karma.html

    I try not to be scary, I am told that I do not always succeed. I rarely use the “e” word about myself, but I don’t deny it when applied to me. You know, I am sure, that I am not a typical example of that genre.

    I am a narrative theologian. I see no reason why one could not be a nontheist narrative theologian. I have to believe in a sentient God because I hear voices, and as a mental health professional I know what that means. God or crazy – I choose God. Despite having a sentient God, I do not really believe that there “A Plan” for me. I think we dance. Sometimes God lets me lead. I think this is because sometimes God likes to do things backwards and in high heels too. But I do not believe in coincidence. It requires a greater leap of faith for me then God-action at work. The chances that some of the things that happen in my life are just random is way too hard to believe.

    I am so glad that you were there. I am glad that you wrote about it and that I found this blog. And I don’t think it was an accident.


    • #3 by Ethan R. Friend on June 22, 2011 - 3:42 pm


      You’re definitely not scary at all. Hence the winky-face, which may or may not translate so well in the font I’m using. Take it as an ironic statement, please!

      Looking forward to more dialogue and sharing as the journey continues.

      Be quiet. ^_^


  3. #4 by Michael Austin Shell on July 6, 2011 - 11:48 pm


    I’m glad to see your exercise in blogging here. I was directed to you by Cat Chapin-Bishop (http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/), whom you met in Boston recently.


    • #5 by Ethan R. Friend on October 6, 2011 - 8:04 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Michael! I’ve been out of touch with the blogosphere this summer, but hope I’m back now, at least for a while…



  4. #6 by Ron Marson on July 23, 2011 - 3:01 am

    I agree with Gump.

    My in-breath is filled with fate, this legion of me, none of them quite true.

    My out-breath is null and void and empty, free of all conditioning. I can be anything God requires on my next in-breath. Pure destiny.

    Ron Marson

    • #7 by Ethan R. Friend on October 6, 2011 - 8:05 am

      Ron! I miss your elliptical, yet often spot-on wisdom in my worship! I hope you had a delightful rest of your summer.

      Be, dear friend.

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