Imperfect Serenity

Atom Site Feed

Sunday, March 25, 2007


This weekend I attended a gathering of Philadelphia Quakers which has me feeling more optimistic about our ability to make a difference in the world. Since there were a few great speakers, I’d like to summarize the points that have stuck with me.

Mary Lord of the American Friends Service Committee spoke about the fact that when she first started worshipping with Quakers, one of her biggest reservations was about the Quaker Peace Testimony. It just seemed unrealistic. After ten years of struggling with this issue, she was struck by a humbling thought: by doubting the possibility of the Peace Testimony, which is based on the Sermon on the Mount, was she saying she understood human nature better than Jesus did? She concluded she needed to give Jesus’ vision a chance. She has worked for peace for the thirty years since.

One of the things Mary has learned during these years is that peace is more practical than war. She laid out all the ways that war is in fact impractical, from the expense and loss of life to the fact that war usually fails to achieve its original aims, even if one “wins.” Peaceful strategies, she argued, often are effective, especially when they are used before the crisis of actual war. She gave examples of wars that never happened—South Africa after the end of white rule and the small states that broke off from the former Soviet Union—places where negotiation and peace building worked and, therefore, didn’t get the kind of attention that war receives. She also pointed out that the period after fighting stops is a time when reconciliation and rebuilding work, like that done by the African Great Lakes Initiative, can be crucial in preventing future conflicts. What struck me about all this, aside from its hopefulness, was the fact that most of my own “peace” work has actually been protest against wars that have already started, meaning I’m putting my limited energy in the place it’s least likely to be effective.

Saturday’s speaker, Joe Volk of Friends Committee on National Legislation, also left me feeling hopeful that Quakers need not be irrelevant. Joe noted that this spring is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and said that the people who started the abolitionist movement had no reason to believe they would ever be successful in changing the widespread belief that slavery was necessary and normal. When Quakers first started opposing slavery, they seemed just as “unrealistic” and “idealistic” as peace activists seem today. Joe talked about a sense of history as one of the things that can help us in this work, along with a sense of humor and a sense of God’s presence among us. Over lunch, he gave a second talk, this one about his recent trip to Iran. I missed most of this presentation because I was chasing Megan and Luke in the yard, but the bit I heard made me even more hopeful that we can make a difference.

I came home to find Naturalmom’s comment about my last post, which confirmed where I was already heading with the “Light and Dark” issue. Translating Mary Lord’s comments to the issue of racism, it seems there are two places we can be most effective: First, preventing children from ingesting the racist messages in our culture. Since I haven't found a way to completely shelter my children from these messages, I will continue to point them out and use them as teaching opportunities. Whenever we see a film where the good guys all have blue eyes and the bad guys have dark skin (like in The Lord of the Rings), we'll discuss it and try to balance it out with cultural experiences than give a different picture, like the recent performance we attended of the Morhouse College Glee Club. The Second place we can be most effective is in working to heal the effects of racism. As Naturalmom suggests, debating the merits of terms like “holding in the Light” probably does a disservice to people suffering from the real effects of direct racism, especially if we're not also working to combat those effects.

I like the idea of focusing on what's effective. It's based on the hope that what we do matters.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Light and Dark

Most often on this blog, I say what I think, and sometimes people post comments. But this week I am hoping to start an actual conversation, with differences of opinion and everything. Here are my queries: When are religious metaphors using light and dark appropriate? When are they racist? Should Quakers be talking about this?

These questions were sparked by the workshop I attended at Pendle Hill last weekend, “White People Working to End Racism.” Although religious imagery was not discussed in our sessions, it came up Saturday morning after meeting for worship when a white visitor shared some thoughts that began, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I was totally on board with that metaphor until he went on to quote George Fox’s description of “an ocean of Light and an ocean of darkness.” At that point I squirmed a little because it seemed that dark represented evil, which was not necessarily true in the first reference. Later a member of my workshop stood up and made a statement against the use of light and dark to represent good and evil because of the ways this association has historically been used against people with dark skin. It made me reflect on my own use of light as a religious metaphor and wonder about its limits.

I should explain for my non-Quaker readers that Friends frequently use the phrase “hold in the Light” for a kind of open ended prayer. (i.e. We were asked to hold Warren and his family in the Light when he had a heart attack a few weeks ago.) We also refer to the Divine within us as the “Inner Light.” To say that all references to light and dark should be banned from our vocabulary (as some people do) would require a pretty major shift in Quaker vocabulary. Certainly in my own meeting (congregation to non-Quakers) we ask every week to hold various people “in the Light.” I had already stopped using this phrase myself, saying “hold in prayer” when it was my turn to solicit those requests, but I’ve never challenged anyone else’s use of it, at least until now.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that there are situations where light and dark are appropriate metaphors. If you’ve ever lived without electricity, the phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” will have special meaning. So will the bit about lighting a candle. In those cases, however, dark doesn’t signify evil or badness, just a time when we can’t see. In the spiritual life, there are certainly times when we can see more clearly than others. The Gospels are full of references to sight, and light is just something that helps us to see. The phrase “dark night of the soul” doesn’t refer to evil but to a time when we are waiting for a metaphorical dawn. It’s important to remember that night and day are both good and natural; it’s just that day is easier to get around in.

The references to light and dark as metaphors for good and evil feel very different to me, especially since they are so ubiquitous in our culture. For example, I finally allowed the kids to see The Lord of the Rings trilogy (provided we fast forward through the interminable battles), where dark skinned (evil) orks fight light skinned humans and even lighter (better) elves. There are so many references to “darkness gathering” throughout the movie that I came to the conclusion that The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are all essentially the same story (Don’t get me started on all the correlations). Even my ten-year-old asked afterwards, “Why do all the good guys have blue eyes?” which was at least a good conversation starter. It’s not hard to see how a lifetime of such images could subtly influence the way we see and treat people in real life.

I’m not quite sure where “holding in the Light” fits in this division I’ve constructed. Is “the Light” God, or just a gift from God that helps us to see? Perhaps more importantly, is this really where I want to begin a conversation in my meeting about race? On the one hand, it seems important to be conscious of the language we use. On the other, it could feel trivial against the bigger picture of white privilege.

So what do you all think? Is this an issue other people think about? I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


When I was growing up, I never understood Lent, the forty days before Easter when my Roman Catholic family “gave up” things, like eating meat on Fridays. My mother always gave up ice cream and ate cheese cake instead. I just didn’t get why God cared. When I left the Catholic Church and became a Quaker, Lent was one of the things I left behind.

For the last several years, however, Lent has become more meaningful to me. Partly it’s the influence of my husband, a Roman Catholic who has long considered it a special time of prayer and discernment. (In fact, twelve years ago we made Lent a special time to discern whether or not we should marry, and then got engaged on Holy Saturday.) The idea of giving things up, I now understand, is supposed to be connected to prayer, and a hightened compassion for those who are hungry or needy. It’s supposed to help tame our egos and make us more open to God.

The value of taming my ego finally sunk in when my children were both young. I realized that I was not very gracious about giving up sleep or privacy. I could be downright resentful when my scarce writing time was taken by a bout of pink eye or fever. I started to wonder if I’d be a better mother if I could get the hang of self-denial—not to become an egoless doormat, mind you, just more gracious about letting go when necessary.

So for the last several years, I’ve been trying to practice Lent. It actually fits very well with the Quaker ideal of simplicity. The simple soup suppers and card board rice bowls at my husband’s church are not so different from the “Right Sharing of World Resources” meals that Quakers often sponsor. By eating food a little less expensive than we’re used to and donating the saved money to charity, we become a little more aware of the billions of people in the world for whom our “simple” soup would be a feast. As I said a few posts ago, I’m preparing to lead a retreat on simplicity at the end of the month, which is helping me to reflect on the ways my own life is and isn’t simple. Aware that I consume more of the earth’s resources than I’d like, but unwilling to give up my car at this stage of my family’s life, I decided this year for Lent to give up driving over the speed limit. Let me just say, it is not going well.

I tried this the Lent after September 11, with similar results. (I described this in a Pendle Hill lecture I gave that spring; the Lent part is near the end.) Basically, I’m running into three problems: 1) I’m not that good at resisting peer pressure. Even though I belong to a counter-cultural religion and think of myself as a counter-cultural person, I get very uncomfortable when all the drivers behind me start to get impatient. It makes me aware of my own desire to please and fit in and the boundary between being considerate of others and capitulating on one’s principles. I can’t blame it all on other speeding drivers, however. Problem 2) is my inattentiveness. Nine times out of ten, I just forget to look at the speedometer. Whenever I do, I’m likely over the speed limit. And then there’s problem 3): the realization that if I slow down I might be late to wherever I’m going because I forgot to leave early enough to get their on time driving slowly. This problem just reminds me how busy our lives are and the need to slow down generally. Some of our busyness can’t be avoided, with two kids, two jobs, and two congregations. But the practice of driving slowly makes me more aware of where we’re going and why.

I’m sure it’s bad form to brag about what you’re doing for Lent, but I think I’m on safe ground, being such an utter failure. I’m trying not to feel guilty about my failures, though. Instead I’m trying to think of the speedometer as a little Buddhist chime, the purpose of which is to bring us back to awareness of the present moment. It’s just another form of simplicity.

Who Links Here