Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Searching for God

On a whim this morning I did a Google blog search for “God” and got over 30 million hits. The top results reveal our culture’s conflicted views on the Creator, though I’m not sure they would help a person who was genuinely searching for God. First I clicked on All About God and was greeted with the message, “We have all sinned and deserve God’s judgment.” It’s a well organized, conservative site that attempts to answer serious questions like, “Does God exist?” and “Is the Bible true?” though if I were designing a site to tell people about God, judgment would not be the first thing I’d mention. I started wondering if a more loving image of the Divine was in the top Google results and found God is for Suckers and Joe. My. God. with pictures of Bernadetee Peters, Barak Obama, and an ad for gay dating.

On another lark I figured I’d do an image search of God, just to see what the Internet came up with. I wonder how many people secretly have this image, an old white man, not reaching out to us from a cloud, but with his finger on a button.

What interests me most is how our images of God affect the way we live every day. Scrolling down the list of blogs that mention God I started finding people grappling with the issues of lived faith. One blogger questions if God wants her in church because she has tattoos, even though she knows it is the people in the church making her feel that way, not necessarily God. A religion writer wants to know if God wants us to genetically improve our children, and another post talks about giving from our hearts, referencing Joan of Arcadia, a television show my family loved before it was cancelled. These topics are much more interesting to me than the sites trying to prove or disprove God’s existence. I want to know how my image of God affects what I wear to worship on Sunday morning or what I get my children for Christmas.

As I was perusing the Internet looking for God, a friend came in to the coffee shop where I’m hanging today and starting talking about all the anxieties parents carry, from germ-phobias to the fear of crime. Her ten-year-old is upset by the murder of Washington Red Skins player Sean Taylor. When their family prayed for his family at bed time last night her son asked, “What if there is no God?” My friend sighed, admitting that it was a call to deepen her own faith.

We can’t inoculate kids from doubts any more than we can protect them from every germ. In fact, in my own life, facing my doubts has strengthened my belief in a Higher Power, just as being exposed to germs strengthens our immune system. Turning from the Internet to my friend reminded me that, after several years away from organized religion in my twenties, it was the example of people I respected who drew me back into an active search for God. Today I find spiritual nurture, not in well crafted arguments about God’s existence or judgment, but in the everyday struggles of other people, whether in coffee shops, meetings for worship, or online.

(Note: Out of respect for artists and intellectual copyright, I wanted to link to the original source of the above cartoon, rather than just copy it. However, it has been copied so many places on the Internet already--by both religious and atheistic sites--that I could not locate the orignal source to ask permission or give credit. Thanks cartoonist!)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Faith and Fear

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving with friends. We enjoyed great food and conversation, even some friendly political arguments, without the tension those discussions can cause at family gatherings. Everyone’s children played well together, and at the end of the meal we huddled around a patio fire-pit to toast marshmallows and drink Slibovitz, in honor of our Serbian hostess and her father. It was in the warmth of fluttering flames and full stomachs that the city-dwellers started talking about the spike in crime in our section of the city. This morning that conversation is still heavy in me, like last night’s pecan pie.

There has always been crime in the city. In fact we got robbed twice within our first few months here. But lately the stories have been increasing, like our city’s murder rate during the last few years. One of the guests told of having his new house broken into twice. Other stories rose up. A friend of ours was held up at gun point walking down a street where those sorts of things don’t normally occur. Then, in the same neighborhood, a man was held up while walking his dog. Because he didn’t have any money the robber shot and killed the dog, an incident I’ve heard repeated many times now from different parties. People seem to be talking about the dog more than the police officer who was killed a few weeks ago when he intercepted a man robbing a Dunkin Donuts. I don’t know why a shot dog is talked about more than the 30 murders that took place in our city last month. Is it because it is a more unusual image than a shot person, or simply because it happened in an area my friends and I frequent, and therefore brings the violence closer to home? Surely 30 murders in a month should disturb us more than the death of one dog, but somehow the statistics are hard to grasp, so people repeat the dog story.

I have mixed reactions to these stories. An important part of my faith journey has been about trusting God and not getting hooked by fear. Still, this morning I left the gym half an hour early because I had an irrational need to rush home and check on my sleeping children. (I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish an intuition to protect them from an irrational fear, though when I get a reassuring intuition I always trust it.) Then I felt annoyed with myself for cutting my workout short and wondered if it was last night’s stories that made me feel insecure. Anything can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, but I don’t want to live my life always thinking about worst-case scenarios. I’ll lock my house and my car, but I don’t want to lock my spirit, which I think can happen to people when they get too crime obsessed.

As the parent of a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old, I am becoming increasingly aware of the dual nature of my job. In evolutionary terms I am driven to help them survive long enough to make me a grandmother and hopefully outlive me. But the other side of that job is that I have to teach them to be independent enough to survive without me, and that can only come with a certain amount of freedom. Unfortunately concerns about crime make contemporary parents err on the side of protection, often at the expense of independence. When I was ten, a friend and I often wandered alone through the woods near Valley Green (a city park). I think those early experiences of nature were an important part of my spiritual growth as well as my environmental concern. My daughter has also spent time in the woods, but never alone, which is the only way to really hear the birds and the wind in the trees. I wonder how much she is missing and how far I can let her wander without being irresponsible.

But this is all about me and my family and how the fear of crime affects us. How much worse for the families living in the neighborhoods where the 30 murders took place? I suspect that in those communities, people wouldn’t get so worked up about a dog. I’m still not sure what I can do to help people in those neighborhoods, except to keep remembering that they are my neighbors, as are the young men with guns, including the one who shot the dog. In the end I realize that trust and compassion go hand in hand. It’s not so much that I should walk around the city in denial of what can happen, but that I have to continue seeking that of God in everyone I meet, even if that person is someday a mugger. I’ve heard at least a few stories of that working better than mace, anyway.

This morning a family friend, who is both a teacher of Torah and a social activist, called to wish us a happy Thanksgiving. I asked him how his holiday was and he replied, “We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to still work for.” Amen.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Blogging Dilemmas

Robin M’s latest post on What Can Thou Say raises the question of how people find her blog. She lists funny phrases like “hip devotional” as some of the ways people get referred to her by search engines. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my kids about search engines this summer, when Harry Potter was a regular dinner topic. To illustrate the strange logic of search engines, I guessed that if a person googled “Quaker,” “mother” and “Voldemort” that my blog would probably come up in the top ten. Sure enough, I was #3 at the time, though this morning I’m #1 for that search!

Robin’s question also made me think about the deeper issues of how we connect on the Internet and for what purpose. On Tuesday, my writers group discussed blogging. A few of our members had attended a blogging workshop in New York that was geared for journalists. They came back and reported what they had learned. The main message was to link, link, link, both to other bloggers and to news sources. The NY presenter had described this as “building community” and said that when you blogroll (list other blogs on your blog) you are essentially saying, “These are my people, my community.” On the other hand, he also advised people to link to those they respect but disagree with so that the online community does not become too insular. Of course, there is also self interest at play. Some bloggers are interested in making money from advertising, which means building readership becomes essential. I doubt this is a motivation for any Quaker bloggers, but I know the temptation of feeding ego and public recognition. It sometimes gets twisted up with the real leading I feel to try to reach others through my writing.

For example, at the previous writer’s group meeting, I learned about Technorati a web site that assigns blogs “authority” ratings based on how many people link to them. When I first checked mine I had what seemed like a modest but respectable rating, though when I checked back last week, I was given “no authority.” What? Where had my authority gone? I know there are people who have linked to me recently, so it seems it should have increased. I checked again this morning as I started this post, and now I can’t even find my blog on their site at all. I proved to myself the danger of caring too much about this sort of thing by wasting a ridiculous amount of time looking for myself online, although the point that I wanted to make was that, as a Quaker, I don’t want to confuse real authority with popularity.

Here’s the twist, though: I am entering a phase where I feel God is calling me to be more public in my work, both writing and teaching. I don’t want to “hide my light under a bushel,” as Quakers are sometimes accused of doing, but I’m also not sure how to pursue things like blogrolling, especially with other Quakers when we have a culture that is rightfully suspicious of self-promoters. There seems to be some balance that’s needed here, so as usual I come back to the issue of discernment, listening for God’s leading. I have no doubt that God can use the Internet for God’s purposes as much as any other forum. In fact I recently found my new literary agent through the Internet. When she called to say she wanted to represent me we had a great little chat. Five minutes into it she asked, “So did you know I was a Quaker?” Actually, no, but it was just one of the things that made this connection seem “rightly ordered,” to use the Quaker jargon. Just like in the rest of life, I have to do what I can to connect with others while trusting that God is at work, and it’s not all up to me to figure out alone.

Friday, November 09, 2007


I’m in my favorite coffee shop, trying not to hear two women behind me who are having a heated discussion about what it feels like to be listened to. One woman just gave the other some pretty hard feedback, beginning with the phrase, “I’m going to be really honest now.” It makes me realize how unusual it is for friends to challenge each other this way and how rarely I do it.

There have been a few instances lately where I have bit my tongue when I was thinking something pretty critical about another person’s actions. In the interest of discretion, I will be vague about the details. (For those of my readers who are friends or meeting members, I’m not talking about any of you. In fact, it is highly unlikely the people I’m talking about will ever read this, so relax dear reader; this is not about you.) In two of the situations, I was in a position of relative authority where my feedback would have been appropriate, but would have also carried more weight and more potential to harm, or at least bruise egos. What I’m wondering this morning is whether my real motivation in keeping silent was the other person’s best interest or my desire to avoid conflict.

There is part of me that has become more humble over the years. So I think person X is making a mistake. What do I know? And who am I to think it is my job to correct him? If he is making a mistake, isn’t he more likely to learn from his mistakes than from me? Shouldn’t I strive to act like a clearness committee, listening deeply and occasionally asking questions that might help the person hear his own inner wisdom? On the other hand, one of the ways we learn is by receiving honest feedback from other people with different perspectives. Wouldn’t it be more loving to tell X what I really think, rather than nod politely?

I think the key is to look at my own motivations. Am I trying to show off and be the expert, or am I really led to speak honestly for the benefit of others? In the coffee shop discussion behind me, the challenging woman seems concerned about how the other woman is treating a third party, a student. Often I think that is what motivates us to share hard truths, concern about someone else. Yet even then it is often hard. This past summer I overheard someone say something racist and have been angry at myself ever since because I didn’t have the quick wits or courage to interrupt and object.

I once heard someone in a Quaker business meeting say that being Quaker to them meant being “nice.” I shuddered because I knew this person was trying to avoid conflict, and to me, honestly dealing with conflict is essential for us to hear God’s guidance in business meeting. It is essential in many other situations as well. I am reminded of M. Scott Peck’s book A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered which talks about the difference between civility and politeness. Real community, Peck says, has to be built on real honesty. Yet I think the woman who associated Quakers with niceness was not alone. There is a middle-class cultural norm of reserved politeness than sometimes shapes Quaker meetings as much as the real heritage of our faith. Weren't we once known as the “Friends of Truth?”

The two women have just left the coffee shop, their relationship seemingly intact. The man sitting next to me sighed and rolled his eyes, glad that they were finally gone. “Issues,” he said with a raised eyebrow. Maybe, but I suspect many of us have issues we just don’t confront. Although they might have picked a more private spot to do it, the two women were modeling honest communication. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Singing Truth to Power

This week I attended my first Sinead O’Connor concert, which made me grateful that Quakers got over their historic aversion to music. It reinforced my belief that a good song can help us feel our connection to God and to other people. The fact that O’Connor’s new album is called Theology didn’t hurt, though I think her passionate voice touched my soul as much as the scripture-inspired lyrics.

One song that has stayed with me is called “If You Had a Vineyard,” (which you can listen to for free here). It is based on the story from Isaiah 5 where God compares his people to a vineyard that is producing bad grapes. The most haunting lines, whispered at the end, are God saying, “Oh that my eyes were a fountain of tears that I might weep for my poor people.” Sinead introduced the song by suggesting that God doesn’t like war.

Another song she sang began, “Margaret Thatcher on TV, Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing. It seems strange that she should be offended. The same orders are given by her.” Even written here it’s not quite the same as hearing those words sung. It’s the sort of simple truth that rarely appears on op-ed pages, or if it does, it’s buried in a few hundred words and loses the power to surprise. I guess sometimes it’s easier to express a difficult or challenging truth through music. We’re touched in our guts, not just our heads. It reminds me of the role of music in the liberation struggle of South Africa, which pianist Abdullah Ibrahim described as “a revolution in four-part harmony” because songs were such an integral part of politically empowering people.

In fact the same day I went to the concert, I met two South African singers who use their music to touch people through a group called The Peace Train. The leader, Sharon Katz, told me how she was commissioned during South Africa’s first free election in 1994 to write and perform songs in Zulu explaining to people how to vote. It leaves me thinking that we could use some songs about voting in this country, as well as some new peace songs.

Of course I still believe in the power of books and blogs to reach people, but this week I’m appreciating the power of music. Sinead’s ability to belt out a passionate sentiment left me feeling emboldened, wanting to be fearless in the expression of my own voice.

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