Sunday, May 23, 2010

If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish

Recently I have read several contemporary Friends' writings that tries to align themselves with early Friends. I also have witnessed numerous occasions during discussions early Friends being brought up and used against others to bolster claims of un-Quakerly acts and thoughts. Are we listening to God or to our egos when we enlist early Friends to support our claims? These holier-than-thou statements help to reinforce deep divisions within Quakerism and drive people away.

For a long while, I have been frustrated with this problem of Holier-than-thou stances made by some Friends, but I have not been able to articulate my concern. As I have thought about this more, I realized that I had this same frustration for a long time with Christianity in general. I believe that the roots of Quakerism are fundamental to our faith, but Quakerism should not be fundamental towards the roots, because we are a faith of continuing revelations, which is a similar view I currently hold of Christianity. This is why we as Friends still gather each week in our communities to hear the continuing revelations from God. If we believe that early Friends really figured it all out, why should we still gather for waiting worship? Maybe we should then just study early Friends' writings for an hour, instead of having meeting for worship.

Personally I don't want to be an early Friend. I am a 21st Century Friend. I do indulge responsibly in the tavern culture, I like to date non-Quaker women, I enjoy listening to sermons at other churches on Sunday and several other things that early Friends frown upon.

Even with that statement, I do recognize the roots of Quakerism came from these valiant Friends, who under threats of jail and death, continue to speak out their convictions. They carried forth a powerful, revolutionary messages of peace, of continuing revelations, and of being able to have a personal relationship with the Lord without the need for an intermediary, all of which are still very relevant in today's world. They successfully sought to have equality in spoken language. I am grateful that I can trace my beliefs back to these roots, but my beliefs are updated to current day. I do not have to reconcile if I am willing to be hung in Boston Commons for what I believe, like Friends who first came to the New World, but I do consider how to maintain integrity while I am on the internet.

Quakerism today is very diverse and looks different than it did in 1660 or even 1850, just like the whole world has changed in the last 350 years. Quakerism has changed as the world has changed. As I look at the branches of Quakerism and reflect on my vast experiences with the different branches, I am amazed at how diverse our faith is and how thankful I have been to be able to worship with fellow Friends from all of the branches. Each branch have retained the essence of the roots, but each branch chooses different ways to live out the Quaker faith. We may disagree, but lets not forget that we are all related in this continued discernment.

These debates about who is truer to Early Friends turn people off to Quakerism and they are not relevant. For me, I am more interested in questions, like: What is God calling us to do today in this time? Our religion does have standards for accountability within the community by using Faith and Practice and the Bible as guides, so we do not need to hold ourselves accountable to people who died 300 years ago. For myself, I am attracted to monthly meetings and churches that are alive with the Holy Spirit, not ones trying to live according by 1600s standards. If I was, I would be Amish.

-Greg Woods

Monday, May 17, 2010

Musings on Radical Hospitality

Last fall at William Penn House, we were called to respond to why we were hosting Navy Midshipman for an evening conversation and allowing them to call what they do “service”. Among the sentiments that challenged us included: 1) being in the military is less about “service” and more about “murder”, and 2) that these young men and their peers were nothing more than pawns in the military industrial complex. During the evening, while people were civil (for the most part), what became clear was this: these young men were articulate and thoughtful. They could talk about their vision for the world and how they see what they do as serving that vision. They could articulate some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of serving. They talked about how the military community has, over the last decade, recognized that humanitarian work is vital to preventing unnecessary violence and casualties, citing the examples of the shift in strategy in Iraq and the creation of floating Navy hospitals that respond to such things as earthquakes and tsunamis.

What also happened that night was this: while these young men were calm and easily answered any and all questions, the questions from the people in the room were not up to the task. There were certainly some questions about specific acts of war and what these young men do when they don’t agree with the orders that come to them, but there was a lack of articulate questions grounded in the philosophy and practice of pacifism. There were passions and emotions, and there was a desire to ask good questions, but the ability to clearly state these questions was not there. What I saw was that the reactivity drowned out the peaceful messages that we seek to bring forth. So what can we do?

This brings me to Radical Hospitality. As we at William Penn House have adapted it and strive to practice (notice "strive"), it means “welcoming everyone as if he/she were Christ”, or in Quaker-speak, “seeing that of God in all”, or for the more secular among us, recognizing the goodness in people. To live this way takes a leap of faith – a leap that can take us right out of our comfort zone about what we have been taught to believe about good and bad in the world. But it does not at all mean being soft or wishy-washy. In fact it is quite the opposite: To me it means that if I really believe there is that of God in all, I want to see it in others and while I share mine with them. In order to do this, I have to do what I can to create a safe and respectful place. My experience is that this actually works in making the world a better place. One of the basic tenets is this, I’ve learned: we have to be fully willing to be wrong. It’s hard in our polarized work, but take gay rights, for example: if you ask people how they feel about laws supporting gay marriage, you’ll often get a “yes” or a “no”. But if you can hold a real conversation beyond the legislation, you often find a much more enriching conversation about the rights and responsibilities of legal couples. As a bonus, I’ve often found, people become more gay-affirming. They may not be where I am on the spectrum, but the gap between us has decreased when we see that, really, we want much of the same thing in the world. Just yesterday, in an almost "comedy of errors" way, when I was stopped by CIA security in Langley Hill VA, the ability to consciously practice this rather than get fearful or angry led to a positive experience where I saw a good person doing his job and, hopefully, a CIA policeman has another example of Quakers being good people, not just reactionary "peaceniks".

What are the keys to living this kind of spiritual and disciplined life? First, I readily acknowledge that I more often fail than succeed in accomplishing this, but I am doing better. I recently read a book called “In Praise of Doubt: How to hold convictions without being a fanatic”. It’s a great read, and really reassured me that there is a great need in our multicultural, multi-religious society for people to commit to the spiritual discipline of bridge-building for peace-making. It’s a calling that I think easily fits with Friends testimony when we can really push ourselves to put ego and self to the side, and consider that we are part of a much bigger societal fabric. It is a life practice that calls for curiosity (“seeking”), and realizing that there really is no “other”, there is just “us” in this world. Even for the military, it is not the alternative to peace. It’s there for those times when pacifism is just not up to the trick. When we can share in this, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Now the hard part for Friends: to learn to really do this often means that we be experts in listening – “bearing silent witness”. Just like running a marathon, however, we actually have to practice, not just think about it. So how well-trained are we at the art of listening? What can we do? Just as “there is no way to peace; peace is the way”, I would say “there is no way to listening; listening is the way.” Let’s get out there and practice it. Let’s step up our commitment to congregate with people of other faiths – and do the real hard work, congregate with those who not only have a different faith tradition but more importantly with those of the same faith but different interpretations and who may disagree with us on some of the issues of our times. When we feel the need to respond, let’s try and sit in appreciative silence. If we really believe in our faith, let’s put it into practice.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Demands and Petitions: Is this all we have?

The recent oil spill in the Gulf is awful. The impact of this environmental catastrophe is still to be told, but no doubt it is going to have a lasting effect on all of us. For this, my heart aches. I hate to see the wildlife that suffers so much because of our complacency, greed, and desires for comforts. I can't help but think during these times that we really seem to give little thought for the future generations, despite all the signs and opportunities to learn.

At the same time, I am pretty disgusted with the internet campaigns that are spreading from environmental and environmentally-minded groups right now. Take Their mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility for our planet. So what is their message regarding this oil spill? It's "a moment when we can help the US and its leaders understand the depth of their addiction to fossil fuel, and the real need to get off dirty energy now." What are their action steps? Sign a petition demanding clean energy now and no more drilling, join a facebook group, donate money, and then click through about how to build momentum in your community. Now look at They want you to print up a sign that says "No More Drilling/Clean Energy Now" - with the 1Sky logo on it; take it to the local BP station and protest them, demanding that BP be held responsible, take a picture of yourself, and send the picture to 1Sky.

Is this the best we can do? When talks about "their" addiction to fossil fuels, don't they really mean "our" addiction? When it comes to demands for energy, how about raising a stink among ourselves that we consume less? That we commit to driving less, and significantly changing our daily habits? That we stop using so many plastic bottles? (To see the impact of plastic water bottles, see If all we can do is make demands and shame people for "their" addictions, it's a bit hypocritical, I think. All that is going on is really a reflection of all of us, and until we decide to stop being victims to it and take proactive action in our daily lives, I suspect very little will change.