Every year in parts of the midwest patches of prairie grass are burned to keep invasive grasses out and nurture the native prairie species. You might be asking yourself what does this have to do with being a Quaker or the deepening of spiritual practices? A good question.
Let me start at the beginning. I attended a conference this past weekend at Powell House led by Brent Bill titled "Bad Quakers." The title is a bit deceiving, because even though we heard stories about bad Quakers we used the practice of the queries to sharpen our focus on the Quaker Testimonies. [what is commonly called SPICES -- Spirituality, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship (sometimes Service is substituted here)]
At the end the event, Brent and I were talking about how he takes care of his prairie land in Indiana and a controlled burn came up. It made some sense to me that we were taking about stewardship of his land, but I didn't really understand why at this moment we were talking about it. And there is a connectedness to all things. One thing I did learn is that prairie grass puts roots down several feet into the earth. Regular grass doesn't.
As we drilled down into the testimonies with the queries, we got closer and closer to the essential elements of each one. For me, it was like setting fire to the prairie. Burning off everything that is not needed and making room for the native species to come up and refresh the landscape. And isn't this the essence of continuing revelation? To be in deep spiritual inquiry -- in the NOW -- and see what arises?
Of course the testimony that speaks loudest to me is peace. As a "man of action" I am always thinking about the doing. What peace action can I take that will forward peace? What is the next thing we can do on our committee? These outward manifestations of peace witness are useful and important, but they are only half the story. Like the prairie grass what you see on the surface is only a small part of what is there. What is going on down below? How deep are the roots?
The inward manifestation of peace is the other part of the peace testimony. It is the source, the lodestone, the well spring, and the inspiration for the outward manifestation. The prep work of dwelling in the silence and arriving at clarity for what the peace work will be is deeply important work. This inward time is what can carry peace work a long way. All too often movements are built on the energy and excitement that arises out of opposition, but they peter out because they are not sourced and powered by the infinite working of peace within ourselves.
Movements burn out and activists suffer from exhaustion because they are not grounded in the deep work of being FOR PEACE.
Queries on the Quaker Testimonies:
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” ~ James Baldwin
When I saw this quote I thought to myself: "this was me to a tee." If I remove negro from this sentence it was an apt description. From the age of 16 I knew something was amiss. I just couldn't tell what it was. And I got angry and was angry for a long time.
For Baldwin he had to leave the USA to find a place he could call home, he was attacked on the left and the right for being black, gay, a freedom fighter, and outspoken.
And while that direction was right for Baldwin, it is not right for me. If there is one thing I have learned from Quaker meeting it is that you can't run from your thoughts, they follow you wherever you go. For me the transformative power of Quaker Meeting was using the alchemy of silence to change rust into gold. That is changing rage about the way things are through love to create the world we seek.
As we come upon April and consider the world we seek, I ask that members of the meeting consider seven areas that we can share with FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) for our representatives in Washington DC. You can write down seven areas that you feel are important for legislative action and include up to 20 words as a comment on each. Such as:
Dismantling Nuclear Weapons
The world I seek is one where we do not threaten each other with mutually assured destruction, but use that money for constructive purposes such as education and the general uplift of all people.
Rage has it place, but it is only useful for a very narrow thing -- getting into action. If you are angry, offended, and upset by the actions of government that's okay. What are the next steps?
Here's one: Join the Outreach, Peace, and Justice Committee on April 7th at 10 am and share your thoughts.
Some Quaker concerns are:
When I come back what will the world have learned?
Will the courageous have shunned war’s scourge
covering the graves with flowers; ploughed berms
support a crop of corn? Will tilling tractors turn
a boustrophedon where shells did their worst?
When I come back what will the world have learned?
Will mines have rusted and cluster bomb kerns
rotted beside white phosphorous? Will nature prosper,
covering the graves with flowers? Ploughed berms
in hilly forts make a vista where uranium burned
a path through genes to a generation’s disaster?
When I come back what will the world have learned?
Will ammunition that the creeks have churned,
sog its last round, saltpeter pasture?
Covering the graves with flowers ploughed berms
sprout the swords of iris instead of germs
or gas hissed from its unfastened canisters?
When I come back what will the earth have learned?
Graves covered with flowers and ploughed berms?
About a week ago I saw the film Green Book and like a gnat flying around my ears there is a burning question that has stayed with me. There is a scene in the film where the protagonist, Dr. Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), after getting into a situation with the cops is deeply frustrated with how he is saved by his driver, Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen).
He exclaims: "WHERE DO I BELONG?!!"
We come to understand that he inhabits this place between two worlds. The white world of dominant, privileged culture and classical music where he performs and makes his living and the black world of his ancestors and the people suffering under Jim Crow laws.
BUT ... his question is not a black or white question. Nor is it a gay, straight or trans question or even a male or female question ... it is A UNIVERSAL QUESTION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION! Every one of us has found ourselves in situations where we felt we did not belong. Cultures have expressions for this. In Japan you don't want to be "the nail that stands out from the others (or else you'll be hammered down) and in France to not belong is to have "your ass between two chairs."
Humans, by our very nature, are tribal. We want to belong to a group. And belonging has comfort. It also has drawbacks. For myself, I have often felt that belonging felt like being on a RR track. The path was clear and set out before me, but very little room for deviation. The older I get the more I realize that I don't have to rely on tracks already laid. I can be the RR Company and lay my own track. The second path is much more uncomfortable, but it fulfills powerfully on the question "where do I belong" because the answer comes from a deeply connected spiritual place.
BUT .. and here again ... the question is not just where do I belong, but where to go? How do we answer these deep and profound questions of existence? The film had some answers for Dr. Shirley. For him it was the courage to challenge accepted norms of behaviour and break down stereotypes. However, the film offered no advice however on how to ask the questions and develop the courage to do that.
The message I received in meeting is simple but rings true: I BELONG WHERE I AM NOW.
Before we can assess where to go, who we are, what there is to do, and how to lay down new track -- we must start with the accepting the present and getting absolutely clear on what it is and what it is not. My sense about the feeling of belonging is that we are deeply disconnected from who we are right now. It is so easy to go on auto pilot traversing weeks and years in the same rut. If we can become grounded in what is, accept that, welcome that, and embrace that ... then maybe it is possible to take a leap from there to somewhere else. New trajectories can open once we start to awaken.
In the film, Tony gets connected to who he is in a deeply personal way. Through that connection he is able to develop compassion, but also the courage to confront his own racism. Every one of us has that same opportunity. All it takes is the willingness to BE and a willingness TO LOOK.
Inquiries about belonging:
We arrived in the train station at 5:30 am. The first thing I noticed was a woman who had dropped her train pass. I reached down and returned it to her. The second thing was a man who left his boarding pass in the self serve kiosk. I gave it to the KLM ticket agent. The third thing was a woman who lost her scarf going through the turnstiles. I picked it up and returned it to her.
We were on the station platform waiting for the train to Schiphol airport. It was a cold and drizzling. Phoenix had a dull headache so I moved my bag to the side of the bench so she could lay her head down on my lap and be caressed. A few minutes later our train slipped into Amsterdam Central Station and we jumped up to get on.
In the early hours of the morning when you are both sleep deprived and coffee deprived it is possible to miss things, important things, as there are so many details to manage in a new and strange environment. New language, new customs, new rules ... new everything. What one takes for granted and what one does effortlessly at home takes a certain bandwidth to manage in a foreign country.
Up escalators, printing boarding passes, standing in lines, and going through security. Then I saw the sign: "Please remove laptops and place them separately in the bin." Instinctively, I reached around for the bag that usually straddles my hip like a saddle bag and it was not there. THEN IT HIT ME.
In less than a split second I felt the churn in my stomach and a bead of sweat trickled down the center of my back.. That feeling of dread. The feeling when you know something has gone terribly wrong and you are in the worst possible position to do anything about it spread over me like a black cloud. We stepped out of the security line and were immediately flagged. I said to the security people "I need to speak to the police, I've lost a very important bag." To their credit they took this very seriously and whisked us to the exit and told us how to find the police.
The clock was ticking now. I really had been outside the feeling of time until this moment when I realized we might have only a few minutes until the next train came through platform 7a where many people might see the bag. Our flight to Copenhagen would be leaving in 28 minutes. As the urgency rose, I could feel my head spinning. At once and without any warning I was in "emergency mode." Whatever calm I previously possessed had vanished. I was disconnected from Source.
Me: "I've lost my computer bag, can you help us?"
Police: "I'm sorry we don't do that sort of thing, you should see the station manager."
Me: "where is that?"
Police: "Down the stairs, past the information desk, go right past the flowers and it is on the right."
TICK< TOCK< TICK ... 23 minutes.
Waiting in line. TICK< TOCK< TICK ... 20 minutes.
Clerk: "Hallo, hoe kan ik u helpen"
Me: "I forgot my bag on platform 7a waiting for the 5:43 to Schiphol from Amsterdam Central Station.
Clerk: "okay. give your information to this man [she points to another staff person] and immediately gets on the phone to Amsterdam Central.
Second clerk: "what did the bag look like?"
Me: "It was a black over the shoulder computer bag with a MacBook Air, two books, some post cards and books from the Van Gogh Museum and a bunch of cords and stuff"
Clerk: [passing a note to the woman on the phone to the central station] And what is your information?
We give all the details of where we are staying in Holland and then we must leave trusting that these people will do their best.
Me: "thank you for all your help. What is the next step.
Clerk: "Wait. We'll call you if we find it."
With that we collected our things and dashed back to the security queue.
TICK>TOCK< TICK ... 14 min to departure.
Thankfully we were sent to a short line and passed through security without incident. Walking fast and thinking about sprinting to Gate 26A my heart was beating fast, my stomach still churning, and feeling very warm as I had not shed my jacket.
TICK<TOCK>TICK ... 7 min.
Phoenix: Okay. We're here. We made it. And, if you really want to get your laptop back…YOU NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW! Pull your Quaker practice toward you. This can only go one of 2 ways, Fear or Faith- and it’s totally up to you. You can do this.
Me: [I just wanted to cry. When my father died I inherited his laptop. As a thing it had no value other than as a machine, but as an object it contained all the sentimental value of my father’s notes in it. I felt as if losing it was losing a part of my father and a part of his connection to me]. "You are absolutely right. I've got to shut down this fear right away. There are many good people in the world and some of those good people are helping us right now."
Phoenix: "You're going to have to pull that laptop toward you, but before you can do that you must let go of the fear that you'll never see it again."
PA SYSTEM: "Would all KLM passengers on Flight 1125 please report to gate 26a. Final Boarding call!!"
TICK > TOCK > BING!! ... TIMES UP.
I've never had to center down on a deadline, but if ever there was a time to do it -- this was the moment. Gathering years of Quaker practice into a single moment, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and asked God for help.
Phoenix: “First of all, there’s nothing actually ‘lost’ in the universe -- only temporarily misplaced. There is an energetic practice you can use when you misplace something… where you wrap a golden lasso around it and pull it back toward yourself. If you want to do this, just imagine this in your mind’s eye."
Like a spiritual cowboy, I spin the golden lasso in a big circle over my head and hurl it out into space toward the bag on the platform in Amsterdam Central Station. It finds its mark and with one yank, I cinch it up tight.
Just then I got a message from my father. "I'll find it and make sure it gets back to you. It will be easy for me to do from where I am."
Phoenix: “You should ask your dad to help you."
Me: "He's already on it."
And then our jet was in the air. Cut off from all communication, the only thing there was to do was wait.
An hour later our flight touched down in Copenhagen, and as we made our way to the baggage area my roller bag snagged on something. It was a baggage tag from someone else's luggage that read "Bag Me Take Home." We cracked up. Coincidence?
As we moved through the airport we keep seeing signs for "baggage re-claim" instead of the “baggage claim" we’re used to. Coincidence?
Then, Phoenix’s eyes land on a bright red book in the airport bookshop, with the word ‘FEAR in all caps. She feels like she should approach it, so she does. She’s never seen it before. It’s Bob Woodward’s new bestseller on Trump, “FEAR: Trump in the White House”. She turns it over and the first words she sees are Trump’s own: “Real Power is ‘Fear’.” She shows me this. Coincidence?
Is real power fear? Is real power faith? What is real power?
We find a hotspot and check messages. Nothing. I started to feel the dread creeping in again.
Phoenix: [with that look on her face when she knows something is happening with me] "This is only going one way. Don't go there. Have faith.”
Me: "okay. probably too soon to know anything. I mean someone may have turned it in and gone home after an all night shift."
Phoenix: "let's give it some time and call after we get to the hotel."
Me: "yes, yes, yes. "
Exhausted, we arrive at the hotel and take a long, much-needed nap. After waking, we're sitting in the room and Phoenix asks me to check in. "Close your eyes. Where is your bag and computer now?"
Me: [pause] I sense into the universe… It's in a cage in a room somewhere in central station.
Phoenix: okay, it's time to call.
Me: I don’t want to make the call.
Phoenix: But you have do it. I can't make that call for you. You’re the only one who can pull it back to you.
I overcome my fear and pick up the phone. I reach Rasheeda in the baggage reclaim department.
Me: Hello, Rasheeda. That is a unique name."
Rasheeda: "do you know it?"
Me: “As a matter of fact I do. It was the name of the woman who ran a house I worked in when I was in Scotland." (Coincidence?)
Rasheeda. "I am from Morocco, where was she from?"
Rasheeda: “But you didn't call to learn my name, did you?"
Me: “No, I'm looking for a bag. A black bag with books and a computer. I made a report to the Station Manager at Amsterdam Central Station, and they said they’d call me if it got turned it by anyone. Do you have a record of that report?“
Rasheeda: “No, I haven’t been told anything like that. But, let me just go check to see if your bag is here after all.”
(a couple of minutes pass…) I’m excited. I’m scared. Honestly, I don’t even know what to feel… The anticipation is killing me.
Rasheeda: “Okay, there is ONE black computer bag… Can you just tell me the name of the books inside, so I can tell if it’s yours, or not?"
Me: “Yes, I can! ‘The Powers That Be’ (side-note: that’s a book about spiritual power being greater than physical power, LOL!) and "The Outermost House" (a book of observations on Cape Cod.)
Rasheeda: “That’s great! Your bag is here… Let me give you your reclaim number: 8000 932 573.
Me: “Oh my God, thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Rasheeda: “You are very lucky. This almost never happens."
Me: "Maybe it was luck, but I think some other factors were in play."
The message that this story brings into my awareness is that in life there are many possible outcomes for any given situation that are determined by our intentions. Our intention, which is an expression of our will, is likely to influence which world we inhabit. By asking for help, by invoking the golden lasso and allowing myself to engage in an act of faith it became possible to to alter the fabric of the universe (what is sometimes called the morphogenic field)- like when a scientist observes an experiment and by just observing, alters the outcome.
But ... and yes there is a BUT ... to have a willingness to have faith and surrender (even when things (seem) outside of our realm of control) one has to also accept that there might be an unintended intention, a shadow intention. First, be aware that it might be there and second, know that it is possible to accept both ... BUT THEN CHOOSE which intention to adopt and which to let go of.
In my case I wanted to get the bag back, but I also had a shadow intention, a fear, that it was stolen. A fear that there were people with mal intentent toward me. A fear that I am a victim. I chose to give up the fear, surrender into faith, and let it come back to me.
The other half of faith is trust. Trusting that the outcome that happens might actually be the best outcome and not being too rigidly attached to having things turn out a certain way.
Here are the queries I am considering regarding faith and trust:
"Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("I give you a new commandment, That ye love one another as I have loved you") (John 13:34)
"If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."
— John 13:14–17
For the past week I have been thinking about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. I got started thinking about this in a conversation I had with my friend Jac about the book of John about the seven gates Jesus must go through:
When we do an act of service, it is an opportunity to acknowledge that of God in the other. It may also be an opportunity to get connected to that of God in ourselves. I can't think of any other time in human history when people look more at screens than each other. This is important because the more time we spend in screens, I think, the more we get disconnected from Source. The more angry, distracted, and upset we get by the fear mongers.
When I took a deeper look, centering down on this image of Christ washing the feet of the disciples, another thought came to me besides service and humility. That thought was equality. The servant and the master are equals. When I consider the damage this image does to the hierarchical system it pleases me. Domination is a huge theme among humans. We feed on it, we honor it, and our political system is organized around it. It is a parasite that is destroying society and the planet.
If we can approach each other with honor, humility, and equality through acts of service then just maybe this is a way to bring the divine into daily life. No amount of looking at screens can accomplish that.
Queries I am contemplating now:
In meeting today I was trying to center down and as ever my mind was turning. Perseverating on lists of things I haven't done or intend to do. Communications I have not responded to. Promises I have not kept.
And these thoughts get me no closer to the Holy. And the more I push them away the more they push in.
I remembered something I read in the Friends Journal about how to center down and I started to look at each person in meeting and said their name silently to myself along with these words "they are an expression of the Holy."
I was having a conversation with my friend John about this very idea of moving toward the Holy and he said something very profound. "The Holy hasn't moved, it is we humans that have moved away from it." And you know what? The more I think about it and reflect on it he's absolutely right. It's sort of like those magic eye pictures. The image is right there in front of our eyes but we can't see it. We have not trained our eye.
Keep looking ... did you spot the dancers yet? ... can you see the Holy around you?
The Holy is not far away. It's right there waiting for us once we turn off Facebook, CNN, video games, etc. etc etc -- name your distraction.
I know a gal who just sits in the woods for an hour each day. The Holy is a butterfly alighting on her knee. It is the whisper of the wind in the willows. It is the sun filtering through the canopy of leaves and making a dappled pattern on the forest floor.
What I am most present to this Thanksgiving is the ways in which I can connect to that which is Holy. It does not have the be the majesty of Chartres Cathedral (and yes I've been beneath that gorgeous rose window). It can be the most humble and simple things.
Watch children. You can see it unfolding before your very eyes. Consider Georgia O'Keefe who wrote that her paintings of flowers on such an intimate level were a way of truly seeing them.
There it is again. The majesty of the Holy.
WAIT FOR IT ... there it is again in a blade of grass and the wing of a hummingbird.
And yes, there it is again in the curve of a waxing moon or the shape of a lover.
Queries on moving toward the Holy:
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,[a]
flames of fire his servants.
He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate--
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.
He made the moon to mark the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
to their labor until evening.
How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number--
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works--
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Praise the Lord.
Old Chatham Quakers Outreach, Peace and Justice Committee hosted the film Disturbing The Peace by Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale of www.reconsider.org. The film examines the transformations of several people as they move from supporting war and violence in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict to waging peace.
There are layers of this film worth exploring from a Quaker perspective. The themes that were immediately apparent for me as a viewer were:
The film examines the question: What is the way out of this?
One thing that was amazing is that there is this inflection point in the film where several of the characters are placed in situations where they are forced to confront what they are doing. The narrative they have "bought into" shifts and they get to see themselves in "the other."
As I witnessed this happen I was thinking what a wonderful process we have as Quakers that naturally and spontaneously lends itself to transformation; the gathered meeting and the queries. To say that Quakers are an introspective lot is an understatement, but our very nature poises us perfectly to create the kind of environments where this kind of "transformative moment" can happen.
Queries that are with me after the film:
"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr
As we mourn yet another group of innocent people who died at the hands of an AR-15 wielding killer, I've been considering the words power, force, violence and peace. How do we relate to these words as Quakers and Americans?
We are a nation conceived in violence and shedding that past and embracing a different future may be the hardest thing we do as a nation. As I write this I am recalling the time Robert F. Kennedy stood in front of an angry mob of black folk who were on the verge of rioting after a killing of one of their own by a white man. With eloquence and reason he told the crowd "a white man killed my brother too."
The challenge we have is that the American experiment of democracy is that we only thought of ourselves. As we conceived of ourselves, the American continent and imagined our manifest destiny -- we did it all by force. The Native American clearances, hemispheric control of central and south America was done through force, and global hegemony has been done by force. But force will only get you so far because force and violence always sow the seeds for a perpetual cycle of force and violence. Napoleon said it best when he quipped that "every place conquered is just another place to defend." Anyone can use force. It takes nothing more than a willingness to pick up a club, a knife, a gun, or an assault rifle. The results are always the same: awful.
Power is another matter. True power is the ability to influence. To use the power of word to change hearts and minds. To alter the course of events with the intellect, the heart, and the spirit. The true nature of power is peace because it requires no violence or coercion to bring the change.
We have witnessed time and again senseless slaughter because as a nation we believe in force. In fact we almost have a kind of religious reverence for it. The second amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, the US military is the largest in the world, the US sells more arms than any other nation on earth. But with all this are we any safer?
Quakers would say that security is a shared concern. Security doesn't come from the barrel of a gun or the threat of nuclear destruction. It arises when we understand as a community of people and a community of nations that YOUR SECURITY IS MY SECURITY.
When you're okay, I'm okay. And it is not a zero sum game. When you feel safe it doesn't make me less safe -- it makes me more safe.
When you are clothed and fed -- I am safer.
When you have a good job with good wages -- I am safer.
When you live in a community with good schools and roads -- I am safer.
And it is additive. Each support builds on the other. So when you see that flag with the words "don't tread on me" know that it is a war cry. It carries with it the threat of force. We can do better.
My queries for this week are:
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