Monday, September 27, 2010

Spiritual Hearing Aids

My small, rural Quaker meeting on Lopez Island gathers for worship each Sunday in members’ homes.  Frequently someone reminds people to speak loudly and clearly; even in the country, voices can be muffled by the crunch of car tires on gravel, a ferry foghorn, dogs barking, or a refrigerator humming.  Mostly, the request for increased volume is needed because voices tend to soften and drop when people share from deep, inward places and personal experiences.  And also because many of us are well past middle age, our hearing diminished by floods of loud music or machinery, or just aging senses.

During a recent Meeting for Worship, one member admitted he’s having increasing difficulty hearing and has begun to wonder if he needs hearing aids.   As he’s thought of the possibility of slipping something into his ears to help him hear more clearly, he’s yearned for a similar simple correction to better hear that voice that guides him.  “If only there were spiritual hearing aids,” he said.

I chuckled with others as my friend spoke, yet his lighthearted comment touched a deep truth for me.  I’m always in search of devices to help me hear the wisdom of that divine essence I call God.  Too often that voice is drowned out by others – echoes of fear, worry, anger, doubt, confusion, resistance, grief.  Why is it those voices come to me first and loudest?

I’ve learned to distinguish between the judging, critical tone that took up residence in my head long ago and the kind of wise guidance that comes from a stance of love. Even so, often I have to strain to taken in that loving Presence rather than the old challenges about my worth, trustworthiness, and self-knowledge. I, too, yearn for an effortless way to turn up the volume on the Wisdom that I want at the center of my life.

Maybe tuning in to Spirit never will be as simple as planting a little plastic gadget in my ear.  But there are some techniques that help me cut out some of the competing static.  Most of them require that I slow down—plant my feet firmly on the ground; inhale and exhale deeply; light a candle; journal. Others connect me to a sense of awe and mystery—sunset; the sound of sea water tumbling rocks along the shoreline; an infant’s toothless grin and joyful gurgle; newborn lambs bouncing through green pasture.  Still others remind me I’m not alone—reading words that inspire and cause me to ponder; sitting with others in the full silence of Quaker worship; feeling, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing the natural world that surrounds us all.  When that Voice I know I can trust seems distant or muffled, I need to remember, and turn to, the sources of help for my spiritual hearing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Writer in a Bullet-Proof Vest

Last year, I stumbled on “Castle,” a television program about New York City detectives. Rick Castle is a mystery writer who models his novels’ main character after the show’s Detective Kate Beckett. Castle pulled some strings with a friend in the mayor’s office to follow Beckett and her fellow detectives on their crime solving in order to get material for his books. Before going out on a case, Beckett slides a gun into a holster slung low on her waist and snaps up a black, bullet-proof vest; bold, white letters march across the back – POLICE. Castle looks at his police-issue bullet-proof vest, too. The letters on his spell out WRITER.

As much as she hates to admit it, Beckett depends on Castle’s creative mind to anticipate moves the criminals she’s tracking might make. She accepts Castle’s presence but, with his lack of police training, she fears for his safety; they usually encounter murderers or armed robbers when they’re on a case. She insists on the bullet-proof vest.

I want one of those vests to wear when I sit at my writing desk.

Popular advice to writers goes something like, “Writing is easy. Just sit down and open a vein.” That sounds dramatic, but putting my beliefs and experiences into words on paper can seem as risky as when Castle slinks around an abandoned warehouse. When I sit down to write, I’m not exposing myself to criminals’ weapons, but I am opening myself to feelings that can rip at my heart with the near-force of a bullet or knife blade. When I’m present to the source of my writing, I encounter beliefs, memories, truths, grief, and joy that can leave me gasping for breath, choking on tears, or sweaty-palmed.

I know there’s no gun aimed at my chest when I write, no actual possibility of physical harm. Yet my heart can race and my mouth can dry as if I were being pursued by some danger. What is it I fear? When I’m writing my truth, when I’m writing with a desire to minister, I have to go to those deep, tender places within. To the places where I reveal my weaknesses and flaws. Where I expose my faithlessness, my desire to be in control, my fears that others will reject me if I share my true self or that they’ll disagree with what I hold most dear.

In To Be Broken and Tender, Marge Abbott writes of how she sees “God at work in the hearts of individuals so that they are tender to the pain of the world and the selfish power of the ego is broken apart.” The process of writing opens me and makes me tender to my own pain and the pain of others. My heart may be broken open as I seek to find the words. My ego may be broken as God works in me.

As Abbott writes, “Bringing the painful into the Light does take courage and can open many wounds.” When I write, I often access feelings and knowledge I didn’t know I had or that I’d ignored. I awaken memories of hurting, fear, or sadness that I’ve buried so deep in my unconscious, the pain can feel like a stab to the heart or a punch in the gut. That’s the depth I want to get to in my writing, to those places where the memory and the knowing are alive, touchable. But I ache as I open my heart, and my tender spots need protection, the shielding of a bullet-proof vest.

I could keep my beliefs and awarenesses private. I could, and have, kept them locked deep inside to avoid long-standing self-judgment that I’m not good enough or that I’m not following God’s will. Yet, I’m already known fully by God. And I know that God loves me unconditionally. Isn’t that knowledge my bullet-proof vest?

When I write from my center, I’m surrounded by the light and love and strength of that essence I call God. I’m carried by the spirit that wants me to use and develop my gifts as a writer, that loves me no matter what I put on the page, that yearns for me to minister to myself and others through writing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The sky outside my window this morning is gray. Fog cuts off the tops of the trees and hangs over the bay like a false ceiling hiding a higher one. Somewhere—above that layer of fog—the sun, the light, is shining.

And I’m venturing into the day with the bullet-proof vest of God’s love within me and around me, protecting those tender and broken places waiting to be opened.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To Be Broken and Tender—A Quaker Theology for Today by Margery Post Abbott, Western Friends/Friends Bulletin Corporation, 2010,

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Held in the Light

Candles burn bright and long in my small community these days, even when summer asserts itself for a few more sunny hours. Many of us have turned to these flickering flames to symbolize what Quakers call “holding one another in the light.” The one we’re holding is a beloved man, husband, father, brother, teacher, mentor, friend, neighbor, storyteller, juggler, pilot, sailor, hiker whose world was turned upside down two weeks ago when a doctor told him he has a brain tumor. Now, Greg has a giant half-parentheses incision spanning the right side of his head, and he and his family and a wide circle of friends have been awaiting results of the pathology report.

Two days before Greg’s surgery, our Quaker meeting gathered around him and his wife, Nancy, for worship with an intention to “hold them in the light.” Marcelle Martin writes in the Pendle Hill pamphlet, Holding One Another in the Light, that this is the term Friends use for intercessory prayer—prayer for another person—and that it comes in many forms. “It may involve lifting up specific requests on behalf of someone else, or simply joining with God’s constant love for that person. It can be done when we are alone or with others,” she explains.

On that Sunday, about forty of us gathered. Our clerk lit five candles (one for Greg, his wife, and their three daughters). Out of the silence of worship we expressed our love for Greg and his family; our appreciation for his surgeon and other caregivers; and our hopes for healing, courage, strength, and Greg’s vision that what the doctor would find was a glob of blue jello and marshmallows. Two days later, another group of us met at Greg’s home at the hour he went into surgery at a hospital 100 miles away. Again, we lit candles and spoke aloud our requests that Greg be well cared for and that his tumor be released.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been holding, praying, pleading, and questioning almost constantly. I’ve lit and re-lit candles on my desk and the kitchen table, in the living room, and in the meditation corner in my bedroom. This candle lighting is such a tangible act for something I don’t understand.

Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I prayed to the God of the Bible stories I read in Sunday school. God was an all-knowing, all-powerful man who, I believed, listened to my every word and might just do or give as I asked. As I matured and my faith at times wavered, but mostly deepened, my mental picture of God became less human-like. Now I experience God as a presence, mystery, an essence of love and wisdom far beyond my human comprehension and constructs.

So when I hold Greg and his family in the light; when I pray for healing, strength, and courage for him; to whom or what am I praying? I no longer believe there is a Great Listening Ear hearing my cries for peace, justice, and restoration of the earth. I don’t picture a white-bearded man nodding thoughtfully or shaking his head in response to my requests (though that doesn’t stop me from chanting silently in my airplane seat during take-off and landing, “Please, please, please keep us safe”). And yet I believe in miracles. And I believe there is a mystical power that receives and responds to my outpourings of love, fear, rage, and hope. A presence that hears my desire to serve and be light in the world. A force that guides my actions when I open myself to its cues and signals.

Earlier this week, Greg wrote on his Caring Bridge website of his anger about this threat to the hopes and dreams he had for the future. He’s mad and asking why this is happening at a time he was looking forward to retirement from a teaching career, just as he was anticipating alternative work, new adventures, and telling the stories he’s collected over 61 years to future grandchildren. That anger and those questions are understandable, seem healthy and right. And I suspect God, that great lover of life and joy and peace, is asking them, too.

Yesterday, Greg got a phone call from his doctor that the cancer cells he cut out of my friend’s brain are stage 4 glioblastoma. Greg has a difficult road ahead living with this tenacious cancer. I don’t know who or what has heard my prayers for a tumor that responds well to radiation or chemotherapy. It’s tempting to believe my prayers were ignored. But as heavy as my heart is today, I know that Greg, and his family, and all of us are being held by an ever-present love and power. And I continue to light candles.

Blogging journey update – One of the finest uses of blogs is Caring Bridge (, a site to help people stay connected with loved ones during a significant health challenge.” Or as we Quakers say, it’s a way to hold someone in the light – electronically!

Comments on my last post led to a bit of dialogue and connection to other Quaker bloggers finding their way with this spiritual discipline; I don’t think these exchanges would have happened without this technology.