Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How I got here and all that stuff

I've been re-reading Aldo Leapold's Sand County Almanack (thanks to James and Kristen) and realized this is a spiritual language I'm comfortable with -- it speaks to me in truly religious ways. Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek is in the same category. I see God in Nature, in a complex math problem, in the many ways people express themselves (art, music, literature or poetry, etc.) I believe that there is good (God) in everyone that connects us all.

As a young person, I was exposed to many ideas about faith. Important influences on my spiritual development were Buddhist readings (particularly Zen Flesh Zen Bones), Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the Tao, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I did not attend church until I was in college, when I started attending the Unitarian Universalist Church. I was extremely active there for the next 30+ years. I have never practiced Christianity and so I don't have the Christian background many Quakers do -- whether they are embracing Jesus or reacting against a more rigid Christian religion. I simply don't find Jesus any more or less compelling than any other historical figure.

How I came to Quakers

When beliefnet.com was first around, I took the "what's your religion" quiz. It said I was 96% UU. But it also said I was 100% Liberal Quaker. (I've always wondered what that 4% was based on -- it didn't say. Social equality, peace and simplicity were particularly important to me, but those were also UU traits) I searched for a Toledo Quaker group and finally decided one didn't exist -- but always kept Quakers in the back of my mind, thinking it would be interesting to check it out.

Years later, I met Judy in a writer's group (a Unitarian group, BTW) We became friends, and I found out she was a Quaker. Long story short, we came with her one Sunday, and have been coming ever since. Thanks Judy!

The community we've found here really means a lot to me, and the Silence sustains me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Don't get hung up on labels

Friends, this is the message I gave yesterday at Meeting for Worship as best as I can remember it:

Why do we affix labels to others and ourselves? What good does it do to separate ourselves from others? To create "us" and "them" and "this group" and "that group?" We are part of different groups. Why do we say that we're x, y, and z and that we're not part of a and b? What good does it it do to be x, y, & z and not understand a or b? If we don't see the good in a or b, then how can we understand? How are we to know that a or b doesn't lead to x, y, or z? We all have a common humanity, and we are all unique. Don't affix labels, Friends, or at least, don't get hung up on them.

After Meeting for Worship was over, we had some really good discussion, which gave us some more things to think about. Here are some of them:

Labels are not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, self identification can be a very powerful thing. The problem occurs when we can't get past the labels.

Think about how groups include or exclude people. Humans are hardwired to form groups, probably as a survival instinct. Often, though, we exclude the people who are different from us. How do we work on not excluding people?

We also talked about the complexities of group dynamics in encouraging people to smoke and overeat. How can we discourage people from ever starting to smoke? How can we encourage healthier eating habits when food has so many emotional issues tied to it that nothing to do with proper nutrition?

One person asked, "Why is poetry so inaccessible?" I responded by saying that I write poetry for myself to process things. If others can read it and get something from it, great, but that's not the real reason I write poetry. Susan said that some poetry is inaccessible because you have to know about the influences on a poet & understand some of the history.

We talked about other things, too, but I decided to post this to give others things to think about as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A space opens, and you step in

Last week I had lunch with a friend who works for Mennonite Central Committee in New Orleans. She's currently doing anti-racism training with Occupy New Orleans, as well as other groups. She is, in other words, a professional activist and community organizer. I admire her. I've had yearnings to do that kind of work, especially since the Occupy Wall Street movement got going ...
"But you're teaching," my friend said.
Undeniably true. I won't teach forever, though.
"But what you've been telling me about are your writing projects," she said. "Listen to yourself."
The truth is, I'm a little frightened by all of it.
The technology of this blog has me spooked (thank you, Sarah!).
The business of writing, getting it right, then hunting a publisher, then marketing the book is as daunting as ever.
I have not even visited Occupy Toledo.
What's frightening? Confusion. Rejection. Failure.
Nothing new, and everything new.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Milestones II

Milestones in my spiritual journey: Not necessarily in chronological order.

The booklet

My wife's oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister, along with the resident minister in a Jamestown church presented a series of 10 sermons in 2002 to 2003 which challenged the traditional Christian theology heard in most main-line and evangelical churches.  These two had the bravery and enough confidence in their congregation to present the sort of theological understandings learned in seminary that most minsters shrink from sharing with their congregations.

Having been recently awakened to the possibility of a 'real Jesus' by having participated in The Heretics group (mentioned in my previous post), I was ecstatic to find others sharing similar views -- viz., these two ministers and their congregation.  That is, most of their congregation, since some members left that church not being able to accept the modern theology.

I was so taken by these sermons that I thought they should have a wider audience.  Although they could be viewed on the church's web site, we (the ministers and I) decided to collect them in a self-published booklet, Life Jackets for the Planet, for wider distribution.    The booklet was never given sales publicity but, by word of mouth, it came to be used by 5 different church groups for study.  Numerous copies were also given to individuals.  The positive response it elicited made me feel that I was in tune with a wider developing theology.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How the moon and Godde might be mixed up!

This past First Day, i spent time with the FDS kids. I tried to share with them parts of my spiritual journey but i am afraid they came away with the idea that i think the moon is Godde!!

I was trying to explain how long ago when i had to make a very difficult decision, i talked to Godde and said "i give up (surrender), i'll do whatever you want" and i was instantly surrounded by very bright light (and an overwhelming sense of peace.) The decision took care of itself and i was never troubled about it again. I've also never gotten to experience that Divine light and peace again but as i get older and get closer to going to the Light again, i think about it more often.

The second story i told them was about a later time when my older son was very sick and i could not help him. I was walking on a night with a full moon and the white light reminded me of the earlier experience and it gave me peace and reminded me that Godde will take care of us.

Somehow, i don't feel i told the stories very well for the kids so if you ever hear them say the moon is Godde, please tell them it is not so!

What I didn't want ; Kathleen Helbling

I was raised Catholic as many of you were and I remember being very excited when Vatican II occurred because I felt that the church was in the Middle Ages and needed to come into modern times. But as time went on and I consulted with various priests, I became disillusioned and left. For several years I did not attend any church and felt freed by this. Bad times came in my life, though, and I felt a need for spiritual help. My brother took me to evangelical churches and although they were welcoming, they were so strict in what you could believe (or not), that I felt unsatisfied. When I met Paul, he led me back to a Catholic church that was very outgoing and the music was awesome. Still, isn't there something more?

When we moved to Ohio, we went to several churches and could find nothing like AZ. Then we met an amazing woman and her partner (a gay couple) who were minstering at St. Tomas More in Bowling Green. She began a year long study group called, "Just Faith". This class covered 36 weeks of classes in which we learned about the miseries of the world and how Jesus led us to do something about these things. We learned of the horrors of war and poverty and racism. By the end of the classes we all had decided to become more involved in simplifying our lives and working for justice. On a trip to the protest as SOA in 2007, we met a man who told us about Christin Peacemaking Teams. We couldn't do anything about our interest then, but when we retired, we signed up to go into training with a delegation first at First Nations in Canada. While we were at CPT training, we learned about the work going on at the border with No More Deaths. The following spring, we joined the group and have been working there ever since, part-time.

On one of Paul's hikes in the desert, someone asked him if he were a Quaker. He said he was not, but wondered why he would ask. He said that the pins on his cap were Quaker slogans and he was a Friend and went to meeting in Tempe. Paul went alone to one of the meetings because I really wasn't interested. Paul enjoyed meditation and so quiet time was right up his alley! I, on the other hand, loved music and reading and ceremony. We had agreed that we would worship together when we married and so I decided that I could tolerate an hour a week. The hour of quiet went very slowly for me at first, but the messages that others spoke always seemed to speak right to me. I loved the lack of hierarchy, and the understanding of peace and justice that I found in the Perrysburg group. I loved their work on the environment and work on sustainable food production. I still have much to learn, but I am enjoying the learning. I am feeling that the work I do and the strength I get from the meeting, nourish me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Another Blog I reccomend.

There's another spiritual blogger in our midst.

Check out the blog: Accelerate Compassion.

Do any of you read any other blogs that you'd like to share with the rest of us?

Another Book as a Spiritual Path

There are a couple of books that have meaningful to me as spiritual development:
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennen Manning
A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer
A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
Holy Silence by J. Brent Bill
 I just finished reading How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence by Timothy Miller.  This book jumped out at me when I was looking for another volume by call number in the library.
I was shocked how the book talks about so many of the spiritual aspects of my life that I'm been trying to nurture: compassion, mindfulness, and gratitude.  This is perhaps why I was drawn to it.  Though there as a bit of psycho-babble and patient scenarios here--at times making it seem like Miller is writing more to other psychologists than to a general public--the information is strikingly practical. 

Part of my spiritual journaling practice is to copy down meaningful passages so that I can go back and reflect on them later.  (This also serves me well as a library book reader because then I still have notes on the book, if not the book itself).

So I thought I'd just share the nuggets I've found so far from How to Want What you Have.

“Spiritual longing is better understood as the wish for certainty that we are living the right way; the wish certainty that our shabby lives have some deep and lasting significance; the wish to know that our small, anonymous acts of courage, decency, and self-sacrifice will somehow count and be remembered; the wish to know why we live and what we are supposed to do with our lives; the wish that somewhere among all the dross of our days we might find golden nuggets of eternal truth”  (Miller 41).

“The philosophy of wanting what you have is supported by an underlying assumption that there is beauty, meaning, truth, love, and mystery in the world at all times and under all circumstances, although these things are sometimes hard to perceive, or even to imagine…Beauty, meaning, truth, love, and mystery do not just each add their separate share of goodness to life.  The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.  Beauty, plus meaning, plus truth, plus love, plus mystery equals something awesome, nameless, and inconceivable.  That something might be called the divine Reality” (Miller 51).


Sunday, November 6, 2011

What's a nice transguy like me doing at a Meeting like this?

This is the story of how I became a Quaker. It's an interesting tale that goes back more than 10 years. I was raised Roman Catholic but left for theological and political reasons in 1992, the likes of which I'll not go into here. Back in 1998, I moved to Fostoria and went past a small Episcopal church everyday. One Sunday I got up enough courage to attend services and felt very welcome. I started attending services. The Episcopal Church in Fostoria was in a shared ministry with the Episcopal Church in Tiffin at the time, though we weren't the best partners. In an effort to heal this, we did an experiment where we stopped having service the third Sunday of the month in Fostoria, with the wish that everyone from Fostoria would go to Tiffin. I didn't do that, though. Instead, I used that Sunday of the month to explore different churches.

One day, I saw a notice in the Tiffin paper that a Quaker Meeting would be in Tiffin in a person's home. I asked my sister if she wanted to go, so we went not knowing at all what to expect. We arrived at Dan & Mathilda's home, sat down in a very crowded living room, & sat there in silence. Somehow, we made it through, though we didn't much enjoy it. How could anyone sit quietly for a whole hour? I hated it. I really did. I swore that I would never go to another Quaker meeting. I do not know what compelled us to stay for business meeting afterward, but we did. We sat there politely & listened. When Mathilda talked about playing the mountain dulcimer, my ears perked up. Silly me, I interrupted business meeting (I really didn't know better, but I interrupted politely). Mathilda told me that if I'd wait until the meeting was over, she'd talk to me then. Three years previously, I bought myself a mountain dulcimer. The maker told me that if I could count to 10, I could teach myself to play. I was naive enough to believe that. When I couldn't teach myself, I resolved to find a teacher. Two days after that first Quaker meeting, Mathilda called me and said that, while she had never taught, she was willing to try if I was. I jumped at the chance. I suspect that neither one of us knew just how difficult teaching me the mountain dulcimer would be. (Who knew that dotted rhythms would be so hard?) In those lessons, a friendship grew slowly. We learned that while we were seemingly different, we shared many of the same values and could talk about religion, politics, art, and music. Gradually, we became better and better friends. Eventually, I stopped taking lessons, but we stayed good friends.

In March and April of 2008, I sensed that something was changing in me. I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and immediately reread it, wishing that I could be Cal, the girl who was really a boy. On April 10, I first asked the question if I was really a boy, not a girl, which started my gender quest. Mathilda was the second person I told, and Dan was the third. They supported me and helped me the best they could. The put me in contact with Jake, a transguy who had attended the Bluffton worship group before he transitioned. When Jake said that he was coming back to Bluffton for a visit in August and asked if I would like to meet him, I jumped at the chance. I had never met another transguy at this point. He wanted to meet on a Sunday afternoon. I didn't know where to worship that. I wasn't interested in going to Quaker meeting, but didn't want to have to go north to my Episcopal church only to have to go south to Bluffton. I figured, "What the heck? I can sit quietly for an hour." So I went. While I was trying to pray quietly, a person arrived late and sat down near me. I was trying to pray but was curious to know who this person was. Could it be Jake? I looked with my peripheral vision & got very excited when I realized that it was Jake. I don't remember what happened at that meeting, but I was intrigued. After meeting, we sat around and discussed something from a book, which intrigued me further, and I knew that I had to come back.

The following Sunday was a fifth Sunday of the month, so meeting was at Dan and Mathilda's home. I don't know what I was expecting but went. Susan read a meditation about being birds in a nest; sometimes a person is the baby bird and sometimes the parent bird. I saw a vision of being a baby bird in my nest. I pulled in Dan and Mathilda as parent birds and my own parents and other family and friends, and soon my nest was very crowded with supportive parent birds. After meeting, Susan asked me if I was coming back. I said that I was and then proceeded to come out as a transguy to the group. The group asked me some gentle questions and talked about Jake; they had supported Jake through his transition and would support me, too. Berch then said four of the most beautiful and important words ever spoken to me. He said, "You are safe here." Not only did he mean it, he proved it, over and over again. He later told me that he knew those words were important and that he knew that he could safely speak for the group.
The Quakers were the first group who knew me only as "Aran." They reached out to me in a very difficult time and helped me become the man that I am.

And that, Friends, is how I became a Quaker.

Spiritual Formation

I'm looking forward to our Spiritual Formation group Monday evening.

books as spiritual paths

A noticeable occurrence for me is how influential books and articles seem to keep coming into my orbit just at the time that I'm open to/needing them. From the time I was in an airport heading to my first job as an elementary teacher and ran into the book Teacher by Sylvia-Ashton Warner in the airport bookshop--a book that seemed very odd to be there, but was one of the all-time influences on my teaching--I've started to ponder how this happens. What book supplier thought this would be a good book to put in an airport? It's not the kind of book you'd expect to find there.

So I thought this may be something other Friends have noticed, and it would be interesting to hear of others' similar experiences. Also I'd love to hear what books have been influential spiritually for Friends. Right now, I'm excited by Light to Live By by Rex Ambler. Ambler had read and translatedd into modern language all of Fox's voluminous writings, and discovered that the early Quakers apparently had found a specific process to "stand still in the Light", and this book is about that process, with help "for moderns" from a similar psychological practice that came to Ambler's attention. I'd love to hear from Friends trying this process.

the comforts of being with Friends

I wanted to share some pictures from our retreat partly to practice how to post pictures here, but more to provide a reminder of the fun and comfort we can gain from spending time among Friends. It has been so wonderful for me to get to know this group and build a community as I find my place in a new space!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Finding What I Wasn't Even Looking For

I found the Quakers because of James.  He and I started teaching in the General Studies Writing department at BGSU the same semester, so we were required to attend the same orientation class.  That's how we met.  A few weeks later, we were invited to a party by a mutual acquaintance, and somehow ended up spending the whole party talking about food and Quakers. In our conversation, it became clear that James and I shared a number of values about eating locally, sustainably, and practicing environmentally sound principles whenever we could.  (That night we hatched a plan for James--an apartment dweller--to bring all his food scraps to my compost pile.)

James also told me he was a Quaker.  My notion of Quakers up to that point had been informed only by television: the HBO series, Six Feet Under, had a Quaker character, and the movie Before Sunrise, discussed a Quaker wedding.  Both of these focused on the silence as the defining characteristic of a Quaker.  As James told me about Quaker worship, I said I was intrigued.  Though by this time, I had drank a few beers.  He said he'd found a group called Broadmead Friends that met in Perrysberg, but he didn't have a car, so he couldn't get to meeting.  This is when I volunteered to take him. (Again, I had had a few beers. Had I been cold-stone sober, I would have never suggested such a thing.  Organized religion!  No that is certainly not for me!)

First day rolled around, and I woke up with dread.  I did not want to go to church and be judged by the "holier-than-thous" there.  I'd been there done that before.  It was a terrible, soul-crushing experience.  Had James had any other way to get to meeting (this was before Kristin moved to Ohio)  I would have bailed.  But, a promise is a promise.  So we went.

I sat in the silence, uncomfortably thinking:  "What the hell am I doing here?"  You gave up organized religion ten-years ago, and for good reason.  What are you doing here?"

In the silence, though, the answer came to me:  "I want my life to be meaningful."

At the moment I had that realization, Judy stood up with a message.  She was quoting someone, but the basic jist of her message was spirituality is for those that refuse to believe their lives are meaningless. This was before I knew the phrase "Friend spoke my mind," so I was literally in awe.  How could there be such a unity of spirit in this place?  How could these strangers know what I was feeling/thinking?

In my first meeting for worship there was the mysterious working of the Divine, the feeling of unity, the humbling presence of the Light, and some many other things I couldn't even articulate.

At that point, I knew I belonged.  Broadmead was the spiritual home I didn't even know that I was looking for, and I was lucky enough to have found it.

So, Broadmead Friends, how did you find your spiritual home within our community?  Please post on your own blog post.  I can't wait to hear your stories.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Milestones in my spiritual journey: Not necessarily in chronological order.

The Heretics

Having married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, I found myself in a "nest" of Presbyterian ministers: friends & family of my father-in-law.  The ministers & their spouses and my wife, Judy, had formed an informal discussion group calling themselves The Heretics.  On occasions & regularly  after my retirement I was privileged to be invited to participate in this group.

Their 'heresy' consisted of  1) discussions of writings by authors who would be considered progressive Christians (Borg, Spong, and other members of the Jesus Seminar); 2) review of their seminary learning that mostly seemed 'too advanced' to be shared with their congregations; and 3) an attitude that Christianity was not the only path to an understanding of the divine of the universe.

In short, participation in the group led me to suspect that I could believe that there are aspects of the universe that I might consider 'divine' and that the teachings of Jesus, when stripped of the mythology, was worth study. IOW: a theology for the 21st century, not in conflict with science or reason.