Monday, September 27, 2010

Does God speak only through the Silence?

As I have had conversations with people about core truths of Quakerism, reflecting on our faith, values and practice, there has been one level of thinking that keeps popping up. To put it into a query: "To what extent do we act as if our practice of silence feeds a sense of righteousness because we believe God only speaks through the silence?" I quickly take this to another level of query: "To what extent might it not be that God speaks to us, but that we can become more practiced in deep listening that is perhaps our greater asset to the world?"

Here's what I mean: Our practice is to wait in silence and to be spirit-led in our Meeting messages as well as in our Meetings for Business. What seems to happen is that we go through this process and then take what emerges as our marching orders. We often proceed with a clarity of "here's what needs to happen", "here's where the injustice is", etc.

But what if we instead went forth with a commitment to nurturing and seasoning the sense of the group no matter where we go? Imagine going and sitting in conversation, fellowship, and service with people of other faiths, cultures and beliefs, and listening for the spirit and sense in that gathering. I don't mean sitting with fellow liberals or moderates of different faiths or colors - that's too easy. I mean, sitting with people where we are not necessarily welcome or may not feel comfortable, and being a loving presence, listening for God.

I am learning to view our practice in our Meetings for Worship for Worship with a concern for Business (or any other issue) as just that: PRACTICE. But, as a former runner, I know that practice is what we do in preparation for the real events, the ones that engage the "other". And, rather than look at this as a competition where we want to be the better/wiser person, we instead want to be the best bridge-builder, listener, loving-presence. Let it be our practice and our process that we bring forth externally, rather than hold it internally while sharing the outward message.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Too busy to notice?

We were sitting in the office at William Penn House the other day, and Greg showed Susan (Byron's wife) a trailer clip of a documentary called "Race to Nowhere". The main message of this documentary is that we have become a society in which our children are not allowed to be children anymore. There is too much pressure coming from all segments of society (parents, colleges, media, government, performance tests) that children need to succeed in school to the point that they are overburdened. One of the quotes is "our children are pressured to perform, but are they really learning?"

This past Spring, a student at a NY state high school gave the valedictorian speech in which she called out the education system. In her speech, she talked about the goal of the education, from her experience, is to excel and to get out, but not to learn. She said "while others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it." She referred to herself as the "best slave" by doing what she was told "to the extreme".

At William Penn House, we run Quaker Workcamps. We work with many youth groups from schools all over the country. For many of these youth, the reality is that they are doing the service not because they care, or because their strength is in service, but because they have to meet the school requirements. When I fill out the forms for students, I don't think I have ever seen a question about whether the student seemed to have a passion or gift for service. Most of the questions are about whether the student participated and was cooperative - basically, was the student obedient. Questions are asked about whether hours were completed, but not whether a project was completed. Even the organizations we work with and advocacy groups I am connected to don't encourage thinking. Scripts are given, but thinking about solutions to problems is not encouraged.

Almost thirty years ago, when I was first starting my work career (working in a mental health center with children not able to make it in public schools) I read a book by Tufts sociologist David Elkind called "The Hurried Child". This book called attention to the dangers of exposing our children to overwhelming pressures that can lead to low self-esteem, pregnancy and suicide, and that in blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting - or imposing - too much too soon, kids are forced to mimic adult sophistication while secretly yearning for innocence. The third edition of this book (published two decades later) found that the problem had only been compounded by media, schools, home, and new technology such as the internet and video games. The subsequent decade did not alter this at all.

In all the meetings and networks I have been involved in, including Peace/Justice committees and networks, not once has the concern for this pattern been raised as a serious issue. But to me, nothing is more important than education, and not the kind that tells people what to think, but actually nurtures the ability to think. Real deep learning, I think, is as much art, play (one of the reasons I enjoy the workcamps is it is an opportunity to bring play to service), creativity and research as it is performance, but we have come to put way too much emphasis on performance.

Recently, as I was stepping into the clerking position for BYM Peace and Social Concerns Committee, I requested that the committee take a day together to discern, as a committee, what is ours to do. I sent this suggestion out to the committee of about 12 people. Only three responses came back and were the same: "we are too busy". And yet, when I see what people are doing, I don't see a whole lot of collaboration which, in its purest sense, is about making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I do see a lot of networks and activities that, because they lack creativity, play, and visioning of solutions, end up often producing less than the sum of its parts. As an aside, in my experience, when true collaboration happens, we can actually be less busy but more effective.

There is a societal pattern here of keeping people busy without really thinking about what we are doing. It gets even worse when you consider that there are people working in various systems (including non-profits) who are doing studies and running programs as they always have not because it is the right thing. In some cases they know what they are doing is pointless, wasteful and even counter-productive, but they do it because they are being told to do it and it is the way it has always been done.

In the documentary "Race to Nowhere", one person says "This has to stop somewhere!" But where? Dr. Elkind warned of this almost 30 years ago, but few seemed to notice - in fact, things have gotten worse. The NY state valedictorian spoke up, so maybe that's a start. The fact that Norwood School in Bethesda MD is hosting a screening of "Race to Nowhere" and publicizing it on their website could also be a part of that start. But where are Friends schools on this? I was fortunate to go to Cambridge Friends School in a time when play, creativity, and self-directed learning seemed more weighted than they are now. I never even saw a letter-grade until high school (thanks, Mom and Dad, for that one - seriously!) Are we, as Friends, going to live our gospel truth that there is "that of God in all", and take the time to allow for the youth to develop their own soul and their own way, or are we too busy? As the Religious Society of Friends that includes Friends Schools, can we follow Norwood's lead, recognize that the performance-driven world is doing nothing to break the cycle of violence and unsustainability that we are currently on. Should not Friends schools, because of our gospel truth, be at the forefront of this? When I see so many such schools committed to their students going to the best schools, I have to say "no, not now". But when I get to know the kids, and some of the people working in these schools, I can see that the potential is there. It's just going to take some courage for us all to stand together, as the valedictorian courageously did, and say "This has got to stop".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Root Causes" vs. just roots

I was attending the BYM Peace and Social Concerns Networking Day on Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Sandy Spring Meeting is a beautiful surrounding. The gathering was a spirited and passionate group of Friends who vary greatly in where they focus their passions and social justice efforts. Among the issues: Israeli/Palestinian conflict (with an leaning toward Palestinian rights); mental health services; Muslim relations and understanding; peace scholarships; and environmental laws and policies. Among the various actions: prayer vigils, letters to Obama and elected officials, petitions, education and awareness events, and relationship building efforts (notably between Friends and Muslims).

Among the discussions, there were a few things about the process that struck me. First, there were two Monthly Meetings that seemed to reflect where my own passions are - that all things are interconnected. One of the Meetings started their report stating that they were "all over the board", as they see our current path (globally) is unsustainable, using the concept of "peak oil" as an example. Having this vision of the world - that not only is reducing fossil fuel consumption a good idea, but is a harsh reality that will happen whether we want it or not - influences the way one sees all the other issues of the world. We have an infrastructure that depends on fossil fuels for existence - our homes, our cars, our economy - and we have not made the paradigm shift needed to move away from this. The result is an increasingly volatile geo-political environment as pipelines for oil are extended deeper and farther into more hostile environments of all sorts. This view can do two things: bring a greater sense of clarity of what we need to change in our lives, and make many of the other social justice efforts seem like "window dressing", sort of like fiddling while Rome burns.

Second, there was one Meeting's committee that was not looking at topics, but process. It was considering the extent to which it can nurture individual leadings, serve as a source of education for its members, take on issues as a committee, and reach out to others on common causes. Basically, this committee seems to be considering how to do things more holistically, and how it can get the "most bang for its buck" in terms of energy. I personally think that this is one of the most important things that we can do as Friends. Minutes, epistles, and prayer vigils are fine things, but they are also actions that place the responsibility for problems and how to fix them on someone else, somehow conveniently elevating our own lives and lifestyle above reproach.

This leads me to another thing that has stuck with me from this meeting: a discussion of systemic and root causes. I think it is real easy for people to regress into a highly intellectual discussion about the "root causes" or "real problems" of the world that tend to accomplish very little other than perpetuate blame while fostering a sense of powerlessness. For those of us on the left, this tends to boil down to terms like "multi-nationals" (including banks) and "oligarchies". I am in no way denying that these are not fundamental to our challenges in working for a more just and egalitarian world, but, in pontificating about "them", we are in denial of how we who live in comfort and have thrived off the backs of the disenfranchised for centuries have been beneficiaries of these institutions. We can talk about root causes as if there is some linear cause/effect formula in play, but I prefer to just see that the roots of all we face are deep, connected and have been there a long time. Moving to community banks will not end homelessness - we are going to have to drastically change how we live. I don't mean "we" in a euphemistic "them" way, I mean "we" as in you and me. In fact, I would say that our ability to sit in comfort and talk about the big problems of the world, while our actions are whittled down to pointing out where others are flawed is a form of oligarchy in itself.

I juxtapose this with the main speaker we had that morning. Nathan Harrington is a young man who has started an intentional community in southeast DC while working in some of the more challenging school districts (currently in Prince George's County, MD). His story is full of courage and humility, a gentle balance of following a moral compass with meeting his own needs. He readily admits that finding a home in southeast DC was as much driven by affordability as motivated by conscience. But the entirety of the story is simple: he is bearing witness, and is a vehicle for consciousness. In doing so, I believe he sees more clearly the nuances of social trauma as it has played out over the centuries, and how painstakingly slow the work of reconciliation and sacrifice will be. It is his radical example that I hope to inspire in the real work of the Peace and Social Concerns committee as the real justice work of Friends.