A grossly obese woman in a “Mart cart” shouting, “No! Stop! Come here now!” Her children running helter-skelter, pausing only to rifle through a merchandise display. A wizened old man, his teeth falling out from the effects of methamphetamine. An elderly lady buying a gallon jug of wine. A young girl in jean shorts and skimpy blouse begging for cigarettes. I see all this as I stand at my cash register; and walking down the store aisles, I see shopping carts filled with beer while shabbily dressed babies scream at mothers old before their time. This is George Fox’s “darkness and death” right here, right now in my neighborhood Walmart store.
But I’m a Quaker, pulsating with the Inner Light! And yet, I too have my darkness. In my 20’s I drank heavily and did drugs. I stopped all that some 40 years ago; but even now I—never a smoker—chew nicotine gum to allay the boredom of cashiering. The habit gives me extra energy at work, but I know that even mild substance abuse is wrong. It does remind me that I share in the spiritual poverty I see all around me.
Luke tells us that, in the synagogue, Jesus claimed to have been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord “…to proclaim good news to the poor….” What was that good news? It was the revelation of a Kingdom of God in which love is the law, forgiveness the rule, and joy the fruit.
I sometimes (I’m ashamed to admit) feel superior to the poor people around me at Walmart. To counteract that feeling, I say “That of God, That of God, That of God” as I pass some poor specimen of humanity. A Friend has advised me to turn that practice on its head. He tells me to look at That of God in myself, to feel God’s love in myself. Then, he says, that Inner Love may overflow and become a feeling of sympathy for those less fortunate than myself. And—in time—we may all become aware that we live in God’s Kingdom.
~ Richard Russell
We are all familiar with optical illusions. In certain environments, straight lines appear to be bent; or, looking at a picture of a candle stick, we see an old woman who suddenly changes into a young woman. Optical illusions occur because of the structure of our brains. The human species sees these illusions because of the way our brains function.
Unfortunately, the brain is also subject to moral illusions, one of which is the self-serving bias. Because something is good or enjoyable for us, we assume that it is good for everybody. For example, a person has casual sex outside of marriage or commitment to one’s partner. That person then assumes that all sex is good under all circumstances. Or someone who’s obese sees fatness as acceptable because they like to eat cake and ice cream.
There is also the in-group out-group bias. Democrats perceive sexual abuse by Bill Clinton as normal—as “what men do” according to one Democratic woman I knew. Donald Trump’s liaisons, on the other hand, are evil and depraved since he is a Republican. (I am a Democrat, I should note.) Or Quakers see themselves as spiritually good while evangelical Christians are bad and deluded.
A third moral illusion is the just world fallacy. To soothe our own anxiety about life, we assume that the world is basically good and fair. So, when some evil is inflicted upon a person, we assume that the victim—at least a little—deserves what he or she got. An example might be the girl in tight jean shorts and revealing blouse who is raped. We think to ourselves, “Well, she really shouldn’t have been dressed so provocatively.” Or a drug addict dies from an accidental overdose; and we say to ourselves, “He shouldn’t have been taking drugs in the first place.”
To better understand both optical and moral illusions I recommend visiting this web page from the University of Texas (my alma mater). And we might ask ourselves what moral illusions Quakers tend to hold.
Robert Sapolsky is a famous neurology professor at Stanford University. I recently watched his lecture on “Biological Underpinnings of Religiosity” and felt the need (unfulfilled) to drink a few beers to get through it—not because it was a terrible lecture but because it could be taken as a cogent criticism of religion in general and Quakerism in particular.
Sapolsky argues that the origin of religion can be linked to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since the obsessive-compulsive facet is mainly confined to ritualistic religions like Catholicism, I won’t discuss that aspect. Schizophrenia, however, is relevant to Quakerism.
There are schizophrenic Quakers. I know one gentleman who attends Quaker meetings and claims that alien civilizations have instantaneous internet access throughout our galaxy. His speech is sometimes an incomprehensible “word salad.” I don’t know whether he’s ever spoken in meeting, but I can imagine his delivering a message that is pure delusion.
However, Sapolsky is not focused on full-blown schizophrenia. As an evolutionary biologist, he does wonder why a genetic basis for the disease has survived through the ages. If an illness is catastrophic—like schizophrenia—evolution and natural selection weed it out of the genome. In fact, schizophrenics do have fewer children than average. The schizophrenic genes should almost disappear as fewer and fewer people carry them. Yet, historically, and today, schizophrenia consistently afflicts about two per cent of the world’s population. What is the hidden evolutionary advantage that allows schizophrenia to survive?
The answer? Sometimes the schizophrenic gene complex is only partially expressed, and people often carry only some of the multiple genes (largely) causing the malady. Such people may be perfectly normal; but others display, in attenuated form, some schizophrenic traits. They may be abnormally shy and withdrawn. Their logic and reasoning may be faulty or at least “creative.” They may hear voices and see visions but not in the literal and commanding way of true hallucinations. Such people find a place in society. Their presence is advantageous.
In primitive societies these are the shamans, who cast spells, see the future, and heal with magic. In advanced societies they are the religious innovators like George Fox. Of course, Fox is known for his visions. In 1652 he climbed Pendle Hill and saw “a people in white raiment, coming to the Lord.” On another occasion the vision was an ocean of darkness and death overlaid by an ocean of light and love. Fox came to experience this Light within himself, identified the Light with Jesus Christ, and heard the Light “speak to his condition.” Before long, he was speaking in meetings and passing on to Friends the messages given him by his Inward Light. And modern Quakers continue the practice.
But are our messages from God, or are they the products of a disordered mind? Friends have evolved a process to help individuals tell the difference. We consciously try to discern whether a message is inspired by Spirit or simply an emanation of the personal ego. Naturally, there is the risk that we may discern wrongly. We may even speak out of neurosis or psychosis. Nevertheless, we have faith that God exists and still speaks to us today.
For those interested, Sapolsky’s lecture can be found on YouTube HERE.
~ Richard Russell
by John Herman *
Lord, I confess my need
For everywhere I see
Brokenness. Eye knows,
Mouth tastes, hand feels
Foreignness, as when
A ball strikes, and sight
Reels in sparks.
We are in want, Sir,
We are in jeopardy
We are hurled like iron hissing.
We are ice in a heated room.
We are broken shins
This is our state.
This our commonweal.
You are health, you
A rock in a slimy place.
Your face is hidden, your hand,
But here I stand,
I can do no other.
I need you.
We stand, at all times, naked before the Lord as the torrents and tumults of life assault us. Naked in our need and naked in the sense that our hearts are an open book to God. How often do we break down and break through and beseech God (the great I AM, Allah, The Great Spirit or Universal Intelligence ...) for help?
We've seen so much arrogance in our politics and daily life we've forgotten what it is to be humble. It is okay to ask for help. None of us is the Encyclopedia Britannica
The Psalm of John Herman is both a plea and a promise because among all the brokenness there is also the divine. Perhaps it is in the very brokenness, the complexity, and the deconstructing that we find what we need.
The carefully constructed façade of our little "s" self is just that -- a Potemkin Village waiting to be revealed as the fraud it is. What lies behind is the real big "S" Self, what Quakers would call "that of God in each of us", but to get there we have to be willing to be vulnerable & humble ... NAKED.
And why not? We already are.
* WHITE SUMMER by John J. Herman
Quakers, just by being Quakers, should be happy or at least fulfilled or at least on the road to fulfillment and happiness. I took the online Happiness Quiz and discovered that, although my score was far from perfect, I’m a qualified “happiness expert.”
Take the online quiz and find out how happy you are. Of course, you probably already know; and if your scoower than you’d like, remember not to take the quiz too seriously. Being too serious is detrimental to happiness!
~ Richard Russell
During my undergraduate years at the University of Texas, I discovered I was good at Latin. Before long, I was informally majoring in Classics and especially interested in Roman History. I was a shy, passive sort; and studying the aggressive Romans probably allowed me to compensate for my fears. I could take a vicarious satisfaction in Roman military prowess and the Roman tenacity that turned defeat into victory. I could identify with Julius Caesar even when he massacred and enslaved his enemies. Those barbaric Gauls got what they deserved!
Well, I’ve changed. Last night I watched a Netflix episode about Julius Caesar and found myself totally turned off by Caesar’s relentless ambition. It was typical of the Roman upper class to find the meaning of life in power and glory. These days I’m almost nauseated by that kind of ambition—although I detect a trace of it in myself.
I can’t help reflecting that, while Augustus was laying the foundations of the Roman Empire, a humble carpenter in the Roman province of Judaea had a son whom he named Yeshua. This boy grew into our Jesus and lived the lowest of low lives according to the Roman hierarchy of values. He travelled the dusty roads of Judaea, often in filthy rags, followed by half-starved peasants nursing the forlorn hope of throwing off the Roman yoke and seeing the establishment of a miraculous Kingdom of God on Earth. And this Yeshua managed to get himself crucified like a common criminal or miscreant slave.
Now, in my old age, I’ve thrown off my personal allegiance to the Caesars. In my own imperfect way, I follow the carpenter’s son and see his Kingdom of God as both a present and future reality. Of course, there are other ways to God, and I certainly don’t disparage different spiritual paths. The important thing is to be travelling, journeying, seeking your own spiritual Jerusalem.
~ Richard Russell
Which are you? You probably know, but this Color Test can confirm (or contradict) your intuition. There’s considerable research evidence to support the validity and reliability of the test. I took it twice, choosing somewhat different colors each time, but ended up with the same score: half extrovert, half introvert.
This result confirms my feeling that, although I was an introvert and painfully shy forty years ago, I’ve steadily progressed toward the extrovert end of the spectrum. This drawn-out change possibly explains why, many years ago, I was interested in Quakerism but only recently joined the Society. In the past, I was too withdrawn and fearful to join; but, as my extroversion has increased, I’ve finally acquired the courage to become a member.
Perhaps, for you too, this test will explain some aspect of your Quakerism.
~ Richard Russell
My becoming a Quaker was serendipitous—that is, I accidentally found something good. Rewriting a definition of serendipity from yourdictionary.com , I propose that serendipity may be a combination of random events, individually beneficial or good, which—perceived to be related as time passes—produce a wonderful (more than good) outcome. (Bev Thompson will recognize a trace of Alfred North Whitehead in this definition.)
In fact, let’s rewrite the statement like this: serendipity is a combination of random events, individually revealing God, which—seen as related in the perspective of time—produce a mystical but actual outcome in the world.
Whew! Are you still reading? So, my Quakerness is a combination of accidental (but revelatory) events through the years. For example, many years ago, I accidentally pulled from a library shelf Jessamyn West’s A Quaker Reader. I casually turned to a section of the book with quotes from Isaac Penington. I found myself thinking, “This is it. This is the path.” At the time I did not, however, explore Quakerism further since my native skepticism quickly reasserted itself. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted.
Much later, bored by my job as a route vendor, I began looking for some hobby or activity that would make life a little more interesting. I decided to start studying Spanish. Soon I was spending all my leisure time on the project; and after several years, including a stay in South America, I had developed a very real fluency in the language. In learning Spanish, I met the Catholic culture of the Spanish-speaking peoples. Catholicism vanquished skepticism, and I converted. In the process, I considered Quakerism but was too shy to penetrate the aloofness of the Quakers in the local meeting.
As more time passed, I discovered my religiosity to be quite heretical and un-Catholic. I drifted away from the Church. About three years ago, again during a period of boredom, I happened upon the spiritual e-retreats of Friends General Conference. After taking just about all those courses, I began thinking in earnest about becoming a Friend.
Unfortunately, there were no meetings near me in North Texas. An FGC internet acquaintance suggested I look at New York Yearly Meeting, which had recently adopted a route to membership that bypassed monthly meetings. The pandemic struck. More and more meetings went online as a result. Since I was interested in NYYM, I decided to investigate the websites of New York monthly meetings. I made a list of a half-dozen New York meetings that allowed people to join online without e-mailing in advance for a Zoom link.
Strictly by chance, I chose Old Chatham Monthly Meeting as my first experiment. I was warmly welcomed by Jens Braun during the afterthoughts in the spirit of worship. I began attending regularly online and soon discovered the OCMM worship group. I applied for membership, and the rest is history.
So, this was the series of events: a library book, the study of Spanish, conversion to Catholicism, FGC e-retreats, NYYM’s membership option, the pandemic, and barging into an online meeting of Old Chatham Quakers. None of these events was pre-determined or anything but random from my perspective. But God was present in all the above happenings. And being accepted by Old Chatham Quakers was the serendipitous result.
~ Richard Russell
I was talking to a friend recently and he used the turn of phrase "the devil is in the details" when we were talking about contracts and agreements. How it is possible to get snagged on a small thing if you're not paying attention; like an increase in interest if you miss just one payment for example.
I said that I preferred the phrase "God is in the details." I like it because it invokes the intelligence that is all around us in everything great and small. Consider the wings of a hummingbird. Imagine for a moment the level of intelligence and detail that makes this creature possible.
The word WONDER comes to mind. Devil in the details only invokes fear. Haven't we had enough of that? What would it be like if in all our thoughts, actions and interactions we operate from the context that God is in the details and we just come from a place of wonder.
How can we do that?
Slowing down is a place to start. For 150,000 years modern humans have been here. For thousands of those years literally nothing changed. If you were to look at a high speed film of the first 149.000 years it would be a monotony of sameness. There was a natural pace to life that flowed with the rhythm of the days and seasons. Since the "enlightenment" things have been getting faster and faster. With the advent of radio and TV the cycle revved up. When we got the hand held communicator with all the apps the pace of life is now changing literally second to second.
Quaker Meeting is the one place in my life where I have been able to carve out this quiet time. I want more limits and sadly I fail regularly in this area.
When do we slow down? How can we approach God -- in the details -- if we don't notice them? If we don't see them. My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, asks the question "how to be idle and blessed?" We naturally discover this when we step off the work wheel for a while. We notice that the clouds are not still, but are moving ever so slightly when we look into the sky for no particular reason.
This slowing down is not just a luxury for those with time, but is essential.
God is in each of us. We are part of the details.
God is in all things. We are part of the great whole.
God is in the details.
~ Joseph Olejak
True hippies celebrated the human body and the senses. Dropping acid, smoking pot, or just meditating could erase the boundary between the body and the world. The body could flow into the world. The world could flow into the body. To use a metaphor from Rumi, the Sufi mystic, a drop of water can be absorbed by the ocean; but simultaneously, the ocean is absorbed into the drop.
Taking off your clothes in the presence of others—nudism—is one way to free body and soul from social strictures; and that freedom is best experienced in an outdoors natural setting. For hippies and UT Austin students in the 60’s, Hippie Hollow—a remote area of Lake Travis and invisible from the road above—was almost the only safe place to communally bare all.
Hippie Hollow’s origins are shrouded in legend. Knowledge of the place was passed on by word of mouth; and—as far as I can tell—the earliest mention of Hippie Hollow in the Austin American-Statesman is a 1971 article about a woman who was seen “…floating nude, face down on a raft” and subsequently charged with disorderly conduct. Those charges were dismissed, presumably because—in Texas—nudity is only criminal when the perpetrator is recklessly trying to offend (or arouse) another person in a public place.
As an open secret, Hippie Hollow remained an undeveloped spot in the 60’s and early 70’s. In 1985 a gradual process of improvement was begun; and today there are restrooms, drinking water, and even a trail designed for disabled persons. It’s the only clothes-optional public park in Texas.
I can imagine myself visiting in the pre-developed, “hippie” past. In my mind’s eye, I see myself innocently splashing around in the water. Suddenly, a park ranger from the twenty-first century shouts, “Hey, you! What are you doing down there?” Of course, I’ve never been to Hippie Hollow, I don’t swim; and in the 60’s I was afraid of fully dressed people, let alone naked ones. Regardless, it would have been an enriching experience to visit the place and commune with nature just like the hippies of old.
It’s interesting to note that Quakers of the 17th century sometimes went naked “as a sign.” George Fox even encouraged the practice to symbolize that at death people are stripped of earthly wealth and success. Still, even in the 17th century, the practice was scandalous.
We modern Quakers keep our clothes on, but we should bare all spiritually. In Meeting for Worship, we’re supposed to drop our self-defenses and open our naked souls to God or Spirit. In Worship Sharing, we should be vulnerable and remove the psychological barriers between our inmost selves and other people. If we’re primarily concerned to project a sanitized image of ourselves, we’re really playing a public relations game and allowing fear to block our spiritual progress. No one can see our soul, our “true self,” nor can we see into the depths of another’s being. Only the naked truth will allow love to flourish.
Human beings need connection to one another. In pre-historic times such connections were necessary for physical survival. Hunters needed to co-operate to bring down a Mammoth, and the meat had to be shared with the whole group so that it wouldn’t go to waste. Reciprocity ruled. If I share my food today, you’ll share your food tomorrow. If you gather berries today, I’ll take care of your children while you’re foraging. Tomorrow the roles may be reversed. Human connectedness and sociability were built into our genes.
True religion, then, the search for “spiritual food,” is a communal enterprise. We seek God together, not as solitary individuals. In 1652 George Fox saw “a great people gathered,” the operative word being “gathered.”
Anyway, click HERE for the official website of McGregor/Hippie Hollow Park.
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