Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Are Quakers Christian?

After an epic, three day struggle with the weather and the Seatac airport, I made it home to Anchorage for Christmas. My mom and I both spent a considerable amount of time on hold with Alaska Airlines after my first flight was canceled, and we were very relieved when I finally walked out of the terminal on Monday evening.

On the way home from the airport, mom and I stopped by my parents' church to pick up my dad and sister Rachel. They had spent the evening at the church helping needy families pick out food and Christmas presents. Spending time at my parents' evangelical church always makes me think of how different it is from my Quaker meetings. After we left, I told my parents that a Friend had asked me whether my parents were upset that I had become a Quaker. Mom said, "I really don't care what you are, as long as it is Christian!"

I didn't say anything, but all I could think about were all of the discussions I have heard lately about whether Quakers are Christians. As far as I can tell, the answer seems to be, "it depends."

I have always loved Christmas. I love taking time off to spend with family and friends, sharing good meals, singing Christmas carols, and the excitement in the air. But this year I felt more aware of the tensions that many Quakers feel about celebrating Christmas, and that has made me a little sad.

For many liberal Friends, there seem to be two options: ignore Christmas altogether or just accept that it is a secular, commercial holiday and let the kids have their fun. I am not ready to accept either of these positions.

Christmas in my parents' house has always been a deeply religious holiday. I never believed in Santa, and that never particularly bothered me. I participated in Christmas pageants long before I could follow the Christmas story, beginning with my starring role as the Christ child at two months. The first spoken lines I had in a play were as the angel telling the shepherds the good news, which was quite a lot to remember when I was in kindergarten. In the following years, I played nearly every other role in dozens of Christmas pageants.

For many people, Christmas is one of the few times a year that they go to church. At this point, we all know the story, so why do people keep going back year after year? I can't say for sure, but I feel that there is more than just habit or guilt bringing people back into churches for Christmas. There is something about the story that compels us to go, to witness the miracle of a baby who came to save the world so long ago.

I think most people who know me wouldn't give a second thought to whether I am a Christian, but it is a question I have thought about a lot over the past year. I admit, it is much easier for me to say that I am a Quaker than that I am a Christianthe word has some serious baggage. But when it comes down to it, a living Christ is at the center of my beliefs. For me, being Quaker means being Christian, and living as a Quaker is how I have been able to find my way back to being Christian.

I think the question for me now is, how can I engage with my Christianity and live in a way that demonstrates my commitment to a Christ-centered life? If I cede the Christian label to people I disagree with, what am I losing in the process? If I am open and share my beliefs, what good can I do?

I have also been struggling with questions of equality and sameness. I fervently believe in equality, but I do not believe that being equal means that we all have equal gifts and abilities. I worry that Friends sometimes pretend like we are all the same to avoid an appearance of inequality, but we should not. Our communities will benefit if we choose to celebrate our differences and use our individual talents to their full potential.

I feel similarly about celebrating Christmas. It is true that every day is sacred, but why should we pretend that Christmas day is exactly the same as every other day? Instead, I choose to celebrate it as a day of joy and love, and a reminder of Christ on earth and Christ with us. My hope is that this bright day in the middle of winter will help sustain us through these long, cold months so that we can all celebrate together again in the spring.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Opening Up

The other day, a Friend asked me why my vocal ministry in meeting is usually so brief, when I seem to have so much to say. I told him that it is physically very difficult for me to stand up and speak, but writing comes much more easily to me. A Friend's story in Walk Worthy of Your Calling spoke to me when she said,
Each time I am invited somewhere to speak, I struggle to get to the inward place where I am willing to be kept stopped up, to be silent or otherwise made a fool of, if that is God's purpose to reach this particular group. (133)
My experience related but opposite. I struggle to get to a place where I am willing to speak, if that is God's purpose to reach the group.

Over the past few months when I have been in meeting, I have prayed that I will be willing to be ridiculous, if that is what God wants. Then I read about how God told Isaiah to walk around naked and barefoot for three years as a lesson to Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20:1-6). My first thought was, "Please, God, not that ridiculous!"

Earlier this week, Friends held a potluck to welcome me as a sojourning member of University Friends Meeting. Shortly after I arrived, my host asked me quietly how I was doing as the center of attention, which she knows is not my favorite thing. I said that it wasn't easy, but it helped that everyone was talking to each other.

When we sat down to eat, a Friend announced that I had to tell everyone there why I became a Quaker. I hoped he was kidding, but apparently that's their way of being welcoming. I did my best, saying that I became a member because I read the Freedom Friends Church Faith and Practice and agreed with all of it. It really is much easier to explain how I became a Quaker than why. I feel like the only true answer to the question is that I was led, but I don't think that is what they were looking for.

After my stilted and incomplete answer, the others went around the table and shared the experiences that made them want to become a member. It was interesting to hear their stories and I think they enjoyed talking about some of their shared memories.

Then the conversation moved on to other topics, including language and music. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about both language and music, but I stayed pretty quiet, as I tend to do in groups of that size. There were others there who clearly enjoyed talking, so I don't know that anyone really noticed.

Afterward, I had a milder sense of the feeling I get when I have a message in meeting and I do not have the courage to share it, that my heart was not clear. I felt like I was being stingy and taking something away from the gathering by not sharing my responses and stories.

But then I remembered that these were people who gathered to welcome me, and that I am now officially part of their community. Even though I didn't say as much as I could have at the potluck, that was not my last chance. There will be time for us to get to know each other better and I am glad.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Last week when I was making breakfast at the shelter, I overheard the following conversation between two of the guests:
"Hey man, what are you going to do today?"

"I don't know, same old. There's an open mic I want to go to, but I'm going to wait until I get lottoed."

"Why don't you just go tonight?"

"Nah, I'll just wait to get lottoed sometime this week."
My heart sank. The ROOTS shelter provides beds for homeless young adults (age 18 to 25), but they only have room for 25 guests. When more than 25 people need a place to stay, the shelter has to have a lottery to decide who gets to come in. Being stuck on the street for the night is referred to as "lottoed."

Because I volunteer in the morning, I don't usually have to think about the young people who are turned away from the shelter. I just see the ones who are there at breakfast. But it has been really cold in Seattle this week (I can see snow on the ground from where I am sitting at my computer right now) and there just isn't enough room for all of the people who need a warm bed.

For most of the day after I heard this conversation, I was very sad. Then I got mad. This Christmas season, there seems to be an air of desperation. The economy is in bad shape, and it seems like everywhere I go, there are messages about how we need to buy more stuff to save it.

I'm not buying it. I am making most of my presents this Christmas and contributing to Heifer International or other charities for the rest. I do not want to be a part of a culture that would let children sleep in the snow in exchange for cheap iPods. And if the economy depends on me spending more than I can afford to pay back, that's not an economy that I want to save.

And yet, I believe the Christmas story still has incredible power and relevance. A message that has come up several times over the past months at University Friends Meeting is what it means to be held in the Light. Friends agree that this is not really the gentle, benign platitude that we sometimes think it is. The Light of God can be a stark and disturbing place, showing who we really are and not allowing us to hide any of our flaws.

I was thinking about this yesterday at meeting, and the following verses came to me:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid." (Luke 2:9-10).
Being surrounded by the glory of God can be a terrifying prospect. But my prayer for all of us this Christmas season is that we will stand in the glory of God and we will not be afraid.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Come Together, Right Now

One of the best things about having friends come to visit is that I get to feel like I am on vacation too while they are here. My friend Sarah H came to stay with me for the weekend and I we had such a good time!

I had heard about Sarah long before I met her. Sarah is also a member of Freedom Friends Church, but we missed each other by a few months because she started attending Freedom Friends a few months after I moved to Seattle. We finally met at the Quaker Women's Theology Conference and I have been lucky enough to see her several times since then.

Sarah came up to Seattle to spread the word about the Quaker Youth Book Project. She is a member of the very impressive editorial board for the project and they are all going out to various meetings and churches to inform Friends age 15 to 35 about how to submit their writing, art, and photography for publication.

Sarah was elated when she found out that another member of the editorial board, Katrina M, is now living in Seattle. I am always happy to meet friends of friends, so we all congregated at my house on Friday night and went out for Chinese food. Because all Quakers know each other within a degree or two, I shouldn't have been surprised that Katrina is also friends with my roommate.

The next day, Sarah, Katrina, Katrina's cousin Erica, my roommate, and I all headed downtown to go on the underground tour. We all enjoyed learning about the history of Seattle, but I think the funniest moment for us was when our tour guide turned to my roommate and said, "You know, I went to a Quaker college and just about all of the guys there had a beard like yours." Sarah responded, "We're all Quakers!" and Katrina quickly established that she and the tour guide knew the same family in Indiana.

After the tour was over, I left Sarah to wander around downtown and went to catch the bus to go to choir practice. As I was leaving, I stopped to thank the tour guide and overheard him telling a friend about the Quaker connection.

On the bus a few minutes later, I couldn't stop smiling. I was amused by the proof that the Quaker world was so small, and happy to spend time with Sarah, but I was also filled with a greater sense of joy. It is so comforting to me to spend time with other Quakers my own age. It makes me feel less alone or crazy to talk with others about how God influences their decisions and to hear them talk in terms of callings and leadings. These are people who care about the future of the Religious Society of Friends and their place in it. It is also pretty fun to spend time with others who get as excited as I do about a local band singing about Mary Dyer!

The next night, I hosted a potluck for Young Adult Friends so that Sarah could tell them about the book project. We got started talking about upcoming events and I mentioned the FWCC Annual Meeting and the Convergent Friends gathering that I am planning to attend. One of the YAFs commented that I seemed really involved and my roommate quipped that I am a Quaker lightning rod. Sarah thought that was hilarious and referred to me as a Quaker lightning rod for the rest of the weekend.

At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about being compared to a lightning rod. It is flattering, but attracting lightning seems a little on the dangerous side. And I have been getting more attention lately than I really feel comfortable with. But at the same time, it is exciting to be the conduit for people to come together, like Friends did over the weekend.

I have decided that I do like the analogy, though, because for a lightning rod to work correctly, it has to be grounded. I was thinking about that today and feeling grateful for all of the things in my life that keep me grounded. I am blessed to have the help of generous friends, a strong family, two active faith communities, and an incredible God to keep my feet on the ground. With all of that to rely on, I feel ready to face the storms ahead.

[For pictures of our adventures, see Sarah's blog post about her trip]

Friday, December 5, 2008

Somebody to Love

I just finished reading Song of Songs and it almost made me wish I wasn't single. I really don't buy the explanation that this book is all about Christ's love for the church. This is a story about two people who are crazy about each other and some of the verses made me think, "hey, I'd like someone to feel that way about me!"

Being single is still kind of a novelty for me. I was in one relationship or another virtually continuously from the age of 14 to 25. My most recent relationship lasted for about six years and we both really thought that was it. We talked about marriage, children, real estate, you name it.

Then, right around the time I moved to Seattle, it all fell apart. It wasn't anyone's fault and we both felt really bad about it, but it just wasn't working anymore. I was devastated, but I was also studying for the bar exam, so I alternated between being devastated and being really studious, sometimes by the hour.

After some time had passed, I discovered that I really like being single. I have so much time to do things I want to do! And when I make plans, I really only have to think about myself. I tried casual dating for a while, but I hate small talk and I found that I was just having meals with very nice guys that I didn't care about, so I stopped.

I think my mother is about to despair at the prospect of ever having grandchildren. Whenever this comes up, I remind her that considering she had four children, it is bound to happen sooner or later. And I do want to get married and have children, eventually.

Over the summer, I had a moment of inspiration about the kind of husband that I would like to eventually have. Here is what I wrote in my journal about it:
An ideal husband: A man who is creative and kind. He is cute, but not cocky, and he thinks I am beautiful. He is not afraid of talking about faith and he seeks God. He wants to have a family and is committed to raising children with clear values and a sense of social responsibility. He has a great sense of humor and sees the irony in everyday life. He inspires me to be the best version of myself and sees clearly which choices are right for me, even when I don't see them myself. He loves the arts and good food and enjoys cooking with me. He likes to sing. He is good at managing money and helps us to live within our means. He comes from a large family and gets along with his relatives. He is as smart as me, but in a different and complementary way. He has interests that he is passionate about and a career that gives him time to pursue those interests. He loves me and is excited about spending time with me.
I believe that he is out there and that someday I will find him. This does not mean that I am looking or want you to start setting me up (you know who you are!). For now, I have plenty to do and I am willing to wait until the right person comes along.