Quaker Theology #29 -- Summer-Fall 2016
Narrative Theology: The Land
On the Appalachian Plateau in Southwestern
Pennsylvania, a farm lies fallow from decades of disuse. The fine old
Pennsylvania bank barn has collapsed toward the silo. The roof is lying
on the wooden ruins and they in turn have buckled and fainted onto the
stone work foundation. The pastures and crop fields all across that
mountain have gone to weeds, then to scrub and are now returning to the
hardwood cleared before the French and Indian War.
This fate was to be expected especially from the
people who bought that precious piece of history from my family. With
little respect for the land and the farm, they found a way to paste
modernization obscenely onto the old log and clapboard house with some
sort of glass sun room. They tore down the high front porch leaving the
exterior of the sun room hanging out the front wall like a silicone
wart. Then for some unimaginable reason, they allowed Aunt Myrtle’s
beautiful yard to grow into a briar patch that obscures the view of the
house from that old country road.
As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle
taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around
the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of
farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that
living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my
mind until this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation
events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.
They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its
psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious
awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the
kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody
wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It
was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical
I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized
that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal
grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved
far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my
family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has
also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the
I hesitate to begin a description of her here
because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love
for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell
that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened
table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron
and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet
demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a
life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the
kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The
tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil
also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.
Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would
tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she
always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was
there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a
classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight
the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under
the house she used for a root cellar. That damp room encased in stone
would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was
anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the
stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the
land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s
awe for her.
Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don
helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or
two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the
churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us
when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and
sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.
I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we
lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the
Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel
poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air.
Along with this industry there were also coal
burning locomotives and river boats pushing barges up and down the
Monongahela River. There had been complaints from citizens for years
but the Carnegies and the Mellons were able to keep up their
manufacturing practices regardless of the extreme damage that was done
to the environment and the people of the Monongahela Valley.
On October 30 and 31st of 1948, a weather inversion
drew attention to the struggle to breathe in the area. It was a normal
phenomenon wherein cold air trapped warm air in the valley like a lid.
It was deadly because there was no movement of air in the area to blow
the cool air away and allow the warm air to escape. That inversion
remained for several days, forcing the toxins down to the ground. In
the first 24 hours, 19 people died from the pollution and many more
died from it later; suffered long-term disease and early death for
decades after the incident. It killed pets in large numbers.
But it wasn’t just the incident of the Donora Smog.
I remember distinctly the black filth that gathered on everything and
the reddened air, we called “Mill Dirt.” When the Zinc Works was
running full on, the odor of the pollutants and the filth saturated
everything. Farmers who tried to pasture on the ridges around the mills
complained that nothing would grow and the land became useless. My
parents began looking for a way to get the family out of that rust belt
town, and they finally moved us to Philadelphia.
An ever present part of my homeland, water and
rivers meant more to me than I knew. When an undergraduate course in
literature at Winston-Salem State University revealed the master
Langston Hughes to me. I was spellbound by his poem, “The Negro Speaks
of Rivers” (Hughes, 1994).
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
My mind locked into Hughes’ verse. I knew rivers. It
never occurred to me why, but something in me kept my eyes on rivers.
When we left home, we crossed an open grate bridge across the old
Monongahela River. It was so polluted that it could sustain little life
and the few fish found in it could not be eaten. My land was ruined and
my river poisoned.
When we passed Lock 4 on the final trip in the move,
a river barge piled with bitumen coal bound for the open hearth
furnaces was pushing toxins downstream that would soon fall from the
sky. It was gold for a few and poison for the rest. The land was sick.
Later the Susquehanna appeared through the bridge
barriers with its scattered islands and made me think of my friend,
Huckleberry Finn. At nine years of age, he had already marked my life
and his story was on a river too. The Delaware, with its massive water
and shipping, became a source of fascination as well. It was huge but
the real enchantment with it was the story of the landing of my hero,
The size of that river gave one pause; the massive
amounts of water able to carry ocean bound shipping were amazing, but
it was William Penn’s first meeting with the natives that held a place
in my soul. Penn had a deed from the King of England empowering him to
take the land for his colony. Instead of using force, he chose to
respect the people who had occupied it for generations and struck a
business deal with them that was carried out with integrity. Because of
the story of his integrity, the Delaware became a sacred stream of
Ganges proportion for me.
We went home often those first years. The
Pennsylvania Turnpike took us over the Susquehanna, and when I saw
that, it made me feel like we were indeed headed home. And when we
crossed it headed back, that’s when the loneliness for my land would
return because the big city was just over the rise and round a bend.
When traveling home to Donora we’d get off the
Turnpike and I’d start to look for the lights of Lock 4 with the town
of Charleroi reflected on the Monongahela. The hum of the tires on the
open grate bridge sang a welcome song that I can’t forget. It was my
land and my river. Every morning after a trip from Philadelphia, I
would head down the mountain to Eldora to see Aunt Myrtle and to see if
the hand painted sign on the gate still said, “Farm for Sale. ” It
always did and I always dreamed of taking the sign down because the
farm was mine – it was my land.
Then one day, Aunt Myrtle did sell the farm and
married a kinder man. The farm was forever out of my reach and I was
left to travel the road on the opposite ridge and look across the
valley at my land. When I made one final trip to see the farm later in
life, the barn was felled by neglect and all I could do was to stare in
disbelief. My heart hurt and my soul ached. The condition of the barn
spoke of contempt for the land.
I can’t help but wonder that my spiritual path has
been so closely attached to the land and frankly, it never occurred to
me that they were connected at all, until after some contemplation my
rather imaginative mind composed a story of rivers and land to explain
the proliferation of Christian denominations and the amazing
similarities between religious ideas all across the world.
I began a fervent search for the authenticity of my
religion when I was a kid. I was taught that Evangelical Fundamentalist
Christianity was the truth and the only truth produced by the teachings
of Jesus Christ. At 14 years of age I began to dispute the claim that
salvation by the blood of the crucified Christ changed people. I began
to doubt that because I saw some changes but generally, very little
evidence that it was true.
I was always pointed toward the Bible as authority
and clung to that for most of my life, but the discrepancy between the
teachings of the Bible and the behavior of individuals making certain
claims as well as the behavior of institutions supporting those claims
was enormous. I wanted it to be true. I wanted my beliefs to be
substantiated. But the tapestry of this version of God’s plan of
salvation became frayed and worn thin with the flogging theologians
gave it and the thrashing by its followers who wrenched it through the
briar patches of twisted behavior.
One obstacle pushed up into my awareness on Easter
Sunday morning in my 14th year. I looked out over the congregation of
Lehigh Baptist Church from the choir loft. The place was full of people
dressed in Easter regalia, and the thought that came to me was, “There
has to be more to Christianity than this.”
Soon after came the days of Vietnam. I was a
miserable failure in Bible College. Northeastern Collegiate Bible
Institute was a strict Fundamentalist school and I had too many doubts,
questions and the creeping onset of clinical depression. The depression
and some apparent disabilities with academics forced me out of the
school. The failure in school changed my 4f draft classification to a
1A. Soon the letter came ordering me to report to the Draft board in
the early fall of 1966. I avoided the draft by enlisting in the United
States Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps is expert at recreating young
people into highly disciplined warriors. The screaming, ratcheting
orders from Drill Instructors, night time sudden awakenings, bunks
tossed, calisthenics, even beatings became a deranged way of life at
Parris Island. [The Corps denies the beatings but I was beaten by drill
instructors three separate times.] We were in an eight week cycle at
the time because Marines were dying hand over fist in Vietnam. The
Corps was required to teach 12 weeks’ worth of training in less time
which meant more intense work at a faster rate. In the last phase of
that cycle, things became more ordered and there was a smoother system
because they had succeeded in reordering our way of thinking.
Boot Camp at Parris Island was the most difficult
thing I had done in my entire life. It changed me and I wouldn’t trade
it for anything except for one problem: The Corps taught me the value
of killing. Even years later when I became a law enforcement officer,
it was easy for me to step into the responsibility of being sanctioned
to take life with lethal force. I just knew I would do it, as much as I
also knew I would not relish it. If it had to be done – I would kill.
I volunteered for Vietnam but the Marine Corps
decided that my repeated sinus infections and pneumonia was not what
they wanted in a combat Marine. I was given an honorable discharge. I
rode the train into Philadelphia in 1967 and emptied my sea bag for the
last time. Eventually, I became a Deputy Sheriff in Avery County, North
Carolina and eventually settled on specializing in detention. My career
lasted seventeen and a half years with the majority of it in the
Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department as a Jail Operations Sergeant.
In November of 1979 long before I was promoted to
sergeant, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party massacred five
people at a rally in Greensboro, NC. Several of the defendants were
housed in our jail and at some point one of the Klansmen complained of
chest pain. We were going to have to transport him to the hospital.
Captain Wood told Sergeant Murphey to send me with the Klansman in the
I picked up my pistol from the control room and went
out onto the street. I was looking in parked cars and scanning the
rooflines when I heard Captain Wood’s voice behind me. “What are you
“Just checking things out to be sure this isn’t an escape attempt,” I said.
The Captain asked, “What if it is?”
As I looked over the interior of another parked car I replied, “Well Captain, I guess I’ll kill him.”
I turned to look at him as he said, “Well, if you won’t, I’ll go.”
Without a second thought, without a bit of fear or
speck of drama, I just said, “Not a problem.” The Captain turned and
On the way to the hospital in that rough riding
ambulance, a car started tailgating and I began to get nervous. We hit
a pothole, the gurney slammed loudly down from a recline to a flat
position – and my 38 was in my hand and in the Klansman’s face before
anybody could blink.
The paramedic shouted, “Whoa, Deputy, that was just
the gurney, calm down!” I looked steadily at the Klansman over the
barrel of that Smith & Wesson, then at the paramedic, stepped back
to look out the back door of the ambulance. There was no longer a car
there. I holstered my piece and sat down. The other two started to
breathe again and my heart restarted.
In terms of my spiritual life, it’s significant that
this instinctual reaction was nothing but the sheer power of Marine
Corps discipline. There was nothing spiritual or grounded in religion
that brought me to the point of flicking my index finger and putting a
bullet through a Klansman’s head. If I had, it would have altered many
lives, but there were no gods or spirits whispering in my ear. From
then on, that Klansman’s gaze each time he looked at me, spoke of the
reality of that dark hole he stared into at the end of my pistol. He
knew how close we came to hard reality in that instant. No theology can
possible speak louder than that. Only the dream of magical thinking
adds in the intervention of a god’s will.
One Sunday at Parris Island, the drill instructors
marched us to chapel. The chapel was full of recruits and a chaplain
held a general, catch-all service. It was innocuous but the stained
glass caught my eye. Each window in the chapel had a Biblical theme,
with all the characters portrayed in military uniforms. Even Jesus was
pictured in battle dress.
I stared at those stained glass scenes with
fascination. I’d never noticed how the Bible stories could be adapted
to fit a certain point of view before. It was not only a new idea but
the process it revealed was mind bending. It’s still vivid in my mind.
In the years after that, I had experience after
experience with people and Christian leaders who did that very thing:
saw their perspective as the only way to view Biblical concepts. The
longer I lived, the more I saw, and the more I saw, the more I
recognized manipulated scripture and ultimately manipulated truth.
Eventually for me, religion became utterly
unreliable. Not only had the Corps changed me into a man with a warrior
mindset but a man with a soul prepared for religious wariness. It took
several years, but I slid further and further away from my conversion
experience as a child.
After my discharge, Dottie and I were married. I
attempted another round of Bible College at Philadelphia College of the
Bible. My problems with academics continued to stand in my way and I
gave up after two semesters of poor grades. Dottie and I took an offer
to help build a Christian Camp in North Carolina. But things were not
good in that place. My experience and opinion of Christian leadership
kept slipping with every year until 1975 when Dottie and I moved to
Winston-Salem, NC and I was hired by the Forsyth County Sheriff.
The job change didn’t change the downhill turn of my
experience with religion. Dottie and I had hard times with our adopted
son being diagnosed with a mental illness and our newborn at the edge
of life with a rare genetic disease. Spiritual care for us was absent;
our pastors were inattentive. We coped on the remaining strength of our
Meanwhile, the Forsyth County Jail was among the
largest in the state and we handled dangerous men without weapons. I
thought it wise to get some training to ease my concerns about those
dangerous conditions. A poorly written sign on a board nailed over the
door announcing a Karate School on a dilapidated building in King, NC
attracted me. The teacher, Sheldon, was a slightly built man with long
black hair and beard framing the most intense ice blue eyes I’d ever
seen. When people met him, they almost always said that he scared them.
When I’d ask why, the explanation was always; “His eyes!” Sheldon had a
New England accent lisped through jaggy black and broken teeth. He
often made an effort to hide them with his lips but tended to let it go
after a bit. I liked him.
I spent over ten years studying with Sheldon. He was
a true martial artist. His concern was in teaching the art and not
simply the American adaptation of fighting techniques attached to a
rainbow of colored belts. Too many Americans are obsessed with symbols
of advancement, thus the rainbow. Sheldon’s system was traditional and
deemphasized belt ranking and increased the art. That necessarily
includes a certain mindset.
In the traditional Oriental martial arts the art is
based on Buddhism and Taoism. I was compelled to study them both and
for a long time, though doing so made me feel like a like a heretic. My
upbringing in Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity haunted me in
this divergence from strict Bible centered reading. As time went on it
became apparent that there was as much, if not more peace taught in
those systems than in Christianity, although the message of Jesus
Christ was still there for the picking. The old block thrown up in my
14th Easter epiphany kept showing up. And through this persistent
excavation, I became more and more certain that there was indeed more
to Christianity than was being taught or, for that matter being
As a part of my martial arts studies over a period
of about twelve years, I worked on the practice of meditation. Sheldon
integrated meditation in our martial art studies. He taught the benefit
of the skill for life in general and in the framework of confronting
violence. Meditation is the practice of deep mental focus. A martial
arts student who has practiced meditation is more able to concentrate
on the moment and use techniques appropriate for the violence he
encounters. It conserves strength and maintains body/mind harmony in a
way that allays self-destructive fear and anger. I also studied for a
brief time with a Kung Fu master and a Hindu couple who taught a
different style of meditation. Their names slip my mind but their
I found myself exploring the Tao, the Buddha, the
Desert Fathers and because of the abuse by Christian teachers and
leaders in my own experience in Bible College and church, I drifted
away from Evangelical Bible based Christianity and began appreciating
my faith outside denominational stockades.
During that time I discovered the Quaker writer,
Richard Foster. I was surprised because I thought that Quakerism was
history. My childhood hero was William Penn and I had stood at the feet
of his statue in Philadelphia. Dad worked for the city and got certain
doors unlocked so that we could stand at the base on top of city hall.
I was awed by the statue. Penn was a hero in my mind and so the massive
statue was equal to the vision of a kid’s ideals. Because of the
discovery of Foster’s books I became a Quaker. Foster taught in his
book, A Celebration of Discipline, the very things I was looking for in
Christianity. My eager mind went after Quakerism thinking it was
finally the solution that would rid me of this unyielding blockade in
my soul that was now decades old.
Unfortunately, I was wrong again. While more
organic, the faith turned out to be more about tradition and rhetoric
than the earthy teachings of Jesus. Fortunately, I never gave up on my
study of Oriental wisdom. I began to discover that Oriental thought
actually enhanced my Christian faith system. The teachings of Jesus
seemed so close to Lao Tsu and Buddha that I wondered what Christianity
would look like if it had originated in the Far East rather than in the
That begged a question. Does religion emerge from
culture? What if there is a particular truth and it is found almost
everywhere in the world but is stated and acted upon differently
depending on the culture? What would be the source of that truth? I
can’t say that I came up with it on my own because I’d been reading a
lot of Matthew Fox’s rendering of Meister Eckhart. There’s a book in my
library by Matthew Fox entitled, One River Many Wells (Fox, 2000). He quotes Eckhart:
“Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.”
Several decades ago, we needed our real well cleaned
out and called a well company. The old man who had started the company
came on our job. They went through some procedures and pumped the well
dry. Then he allowed the well to start refilling. He lifted a large
round mirror above the well and focused the reflected light into the
bottom of the well and asked me to come over to him. He said, “Look. Do
you see the water coming into the bottom of the well? The Earth is like
the body. It has arteries, veins and capillaries. Look there. See the
very strong stream bubbling up? It’s a vein. The two little ones are
capillaries. You have a good well.”
Somewhere along the line I put the idea of divinity
as an underground river together with the streams the old man showed me
in my well. I envisioned religion as involving both wells and springs.
Some spirit wells are artesian, and some just ordinary wells. I also
imagined some of the spirit outlets as springs leaking water out of the
spirit source. The supplier of these spirit outlets would be the
divine, and the outlets themselves not religions but individuals. The
individual sources might be strongly tied to groups, but some might
arise as more independent individuals. The flow of the Spirit would
carve its way through the landscape in which it arose. The land and the
stream shape each other; a mutual carving and crafting based on the
complexities of the Earth’s spiritual/geological history. The Spirit
and the cultural land through which it flows determines the shape the
If Jesus had traveled to India during the years
absent from his history and decided to remain there rather than return
to the chaos in Roman occupied Israel, what would the religion named
after him look like? Would it have been less true? Would he no longer
have been the only son of the one and only God? Would Christianity have
been influenced by Hinduism which was already well developed? The only
thing I could determine from these musings was that Christianity would
have indeed looked differently due to the culture in which it rose and
flowed to its destination.
Culture is also shaped by the land. Not an
allegorical land but the actual land – the earth. The physical
environment itself is shaped by the earth. It is ultimately the land
that determines how a group of people hunt and plant and what it is
they hunt for or what can be harvested from the land. The soil and its
chemical makeup make all the difference to every living thing.
Part of my grief for the loss of my land was that I
was then thrown into the middle of an urban place that was not poisoned
by the emissions of steel mills but defaced by asphalt and crowding.
The land was constantly being coated and sterilized by concrete slabs
with asphalt icing that permitted no life at all. I adapted as all
healthy human beings do, but I don’t see adaptability as
rationalization for killing the land no more than I could have
rationalized the killing of another human being. I lived with it
because I was forced to do so.
This imaginative spiritual project gave me a
cerebral pathway to connect the rivers I knew to the flow of the Spirit
through the landscape of my life. It shaped me and I shaped it. I was
fashioned to question and was often seen as defiant by Evangelical
pastors, lay fundamentalist Christians over the years. But I didn’t ask
questions to be defiant; I asked because I longed for answers. Thinking
in terms of land, when I asked questions, I tended to wash soil away
from rock. It seems that those who desperately wanted the contours of
their religious terrain to remain unchallenged resented me and my
manner. For them I was like the process that shaped the Monongahela
River. Wikipedia (Wikipedia) states:
The Native American word Monongahela means
“falling banks”, in reference to the geological instability of the
river's banks. Moravian missionary David Zeisberger (1721–1808) gave
this account of the naming: “In the Indian tongue the name of this
river was Mechmenawungihilla (alternatively spelled Menawngihella),
which signifies a high bank, which is ever washed out and therefore
This is the work of the river, to carve its bed and to take the
land new places and to greater width or depth, without killing it.
Religious canyon carvers are disliked and often marginalized or worse.
They are safer located on the peripheries where they can be scotched
with sea walls and berms made of dogma and tradition fashioned to suit
In the book, God is Red (Deloria, 2003), I
discovered something that helped me further understand why I seemed to
sense my spirit’s tie to the land. He says:
If we recall the thrust of Jewish history and
its eschatology in the time of Jesus, we come to recognize that land,
the promised land, has remained as a constant and tangible element of
religious experiences of societies.
This came as a flash of insight for me as it affirmed that the
entire history of the Jewish people was indeed about land! I was
stunned when I read on further in the text,
…by substituting heaven for the tangible restoration
of Palestine to the Jews by driving the Romans out, Christians
eliminated the dimension of land from religion…
As I studied this material, I suddenly looked up from the page
and thought, “Of course I feel a kinship to the land and the rivers.
Religion arises out of the land.”
There were other factors, but this was the final
piece to fall in place. The enormous work by systematic Christianity to
wrench itself from the land left me and perhaps others lonely for a
major piece that was missing. We are seeing some of that return with
certain Christian groups acquiescing to the needs of a battered
I recall a poem I once wrote which is now lost. It
was entitled, “I Know This One.” It was inspired by two major passages
in the New Testament. The first was in chapter one of the Gospel of
John, where the apostle makes the claim that Jesus Christ is the Word
and the Light:
All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. (JOHN 1:3 KJV)
Then John restates it for emphasis in verse 10:
He was in the world and the world was made by him…
That identifies Christ as the creative force for all things in
the world. It leaves nothing out. It excludes nothing including the
land and the living things it produces. The second passage confirmed
this connection for me as I considered the direction my mind was
taking. The 27th chapter of Matthew describes the crucifixion of Jesus.
Matthew then lists the natural events that occurred upon the death and
dying of Christ. He says that darkness covered the land and at his time
of death, the earth quaked.
My lost poem connected Christ with the land,
starting with his blood seeping into the roughhewn wood of the cross
that says, “I know this one.” It speaks to the earth and the Earth
says, “I know this one.”
My poem went across the spectrum of living things
who realize as did the centurion, that this was their very creator. The
poem spoke in writing what my soul had been sensing much of my life:
the spirit and its religion evolves out of the land. To rip the spirit
out of the land and give it to an imaginary intangible place above the
clouds is to tear out the “more” of Christianity. What’s left is
soulless and open to hypocrisy, institutional control, manipulative
games and cheap cliché. Without a connection to the land, there is only
theory; and eventually, I concluded that all doctrine is
unsubstantiated, improbable theory; much of it just sanctified magic.
Quakerism seemed to be the logical place for me long
before I discovered this affirmation of my religious need for the land.
There was something earthy and relevant to humanity within Quakerism.
It seemed to be a system that had a grasp of the earth by minimizing
the constant prattle about heaven and the dangers of hell. The abstract
salvation of souls seemed absurd in the light of easing the suffering
of concrete human beings, and I was pulled into that wholeheartedly.
There was the promise of simplicity. The conspicuous consumerism
running rampant in the massive building of family life centers and mega
churches is a symptom of the lack of simplicity and care for the needs
of individuals. Quakers made a historical and systemic claim of
reaching out to the weak and helpless.
In the little book, Peace Prayers (Bradbury, 1992), a short poem became a touchstone for me.
For the Quakers
Theirs is the gentle finger on the pulse,
Of war’s old woe.
Persistent, with clear unrancored eyes,
Of faith they go,
Where disillusionment lost the charted way.
They reach across the desperate long miles,
The sullen sea,
And find the thin small fingers in the cold,
And touch and hold.
But regrettably, my idealism about the historical Society of Friends
and the religious descendants of William Penn was soon deflated. I had
made yet another mistake in believing what I read.
Within a few months of joining the Quakers in the
early 1990’s at a local Friend’s meeting, I ran headlong into the
rancor that this little poem promised was absent from the Society of
Friends. I experienced foolish spending on structures, lying from the
pastorate and bloodletting about theology. I observed meanness and
hostility across the membership of the association we joined, North
Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM). The jaw-dropping ugliness displayed
repeatedly in that organization was over several things, but since the
1990’s the rancor settled in on homosexuality.
Yet it wasn’t merely about homosexuality itself, it
was also about scriptural interpretation. The majority of meetings in
NCYM (FUM) became embroiled over differences about the authority of the
scriptures, the atonement and the definition of a “real Quaker” or a
“real Christian.” The effort of the Yearly Meeting was no longer to
find the thin small fingers in the cold, And touch and hold. The focus
of factions within the Yearly Meeting was to score points against each
other in theology and its theories about the condition of human beings.
The tradition of peace and tolerance was being lifted into heavenly
heights of theological theory. The Quakers of NCYM (FUM) had ignition
and had lift-off. They left the earth.
The behavior of NCYM(FUM) became mean and
dysfunctional. One pastor related to me that several other pastors
began sending him threatening and harassing mail. It so happened that
this pastor was strongly advocating for Gays and Lesbians. He told me
that he called the Postal Inspector and was told that the letters were
indeed in violation of Federal Law. Since the Inspector’s office had
bigger fish to fry and didn’t have the resources to work on the case,
the pastor hired a private investigator and between him and the P. I.,
they found the authors of the letters; all pastors in NCYM(FUM). When
he confronted them, they begged him not to expose them.
He was satisfied. I was not. It angered me and the
ideals that I sought in The Religious Society of Friends seemed to be
only on paper and the organic, earthy reaching out to the suffering was
drowning in the same airy-fairy battles over dogmatic theories.
Shamefully, these battles were not handled as
intelligent quarrels over ideas. By the middle of this decade the
Evangelical, Fundamentalist meetings became cruel, and NCYM (FUM)
Leaders seemed to allow the abusive behavior.
I was also amazed that the older, larger meetings of
a more tolerant mind just drifted along as if none of the misbehavior
of Yearly Meeting mattered. They seemed to be on another planet or at
least comfortably untouched by the bloody skirmishes beneath them.
This was a stance that passively enabled the abuse.
I had come to the end of my tolerance for the cruelty and was on the
verge of leaving Quakerism altogether, when we discovered a small
meeting just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. They were
amazing people; that group of 12 were open to gay men and had the habit
of giving their money away every month. There was a pastor name Tony
Lowe, but he refused a salary and we met with them in Tony and Judy’s
There were problems of course. But the problems were
worked out with reason and love. After one visit to Fancy Gap Friends,
Dottie and I were headed south on US 52 to go home and I declared,
“God, I love these people!”
We joined the meeting. But it had become a pariah in
its larger association, Surry Quarterly Meeting, part of North Carolina
Yearly Meeting. Tony and Judy attended a Quarterly meeting and it
turned dark and mean. Because Fancy Gap’s clerk at the time was gay,
members of Surry Quarter began calling us out. It was ugly; we were
condemned to hell, rebuked as tools of Satan and personally attacked
verbally. Tony’s recall of the 2 hours they endured that barrage of
cruelty had me listening with my mouth hanging open.
The meeting debated for some time about the value of
speaking truth to power and being a presence of peace in that
situation. Eventually though, Fancy Gap Friends determined that
association with NCYM (FUM) and Surry Quarterly Meeting was draining
our energy and we needed to extract ourselves from the abusive system.
My question as the clerk of monthly meeting was, “Since when does the
Society of Friends tolerate abusive and cruel behavior?” We posed that
to Yearly Meeting Executive Committee with our letter of resignation.
The letter was finally acknowledged about a year or so later after its
disregard was pointed out.
Eventually, it came to me that I was hanging on to
an abusive system that behaved much like the population of the jail
that I worked in. Pastors had turned to crime and were guilty of
breaking postal regulations, Quakers were name calling and threatening
with a vehemence that bordered on physical violence but never actually
stepped over that line.
I was finished. The Cosmic Christ that Matthew Fox
spoke of in his book by that name was nowhere near the Society of
Friends as far as I had experienced. Not only was I finished with the
Quakerism that I had experienced, I became suspicious of the rest of it.
This was the point at which I had to review my
entire experience with Christianity. In fact, I began an honest search
of all of my beliefs. Over the years between working in law enforcement
and moving forward in this search, I had traveled slowly through
college, struggling for years to work and study until I finally
finished with a doctorate in Pastoral Counseling. That led to a job
offer at Hospice and Palliative Care in Winston-Salem, N. C. as a
Hospice chaplains work with people of all religions
and denominations with the goal of helping the patient and family find
comfort in their own religion. Every day, I worked with many different
kinds of Christianity and sometimes other religions and even atheists.
I was both enlightened and comforted knowing that most belief systems I
encountered offered hope and comfort. That work lasted a little more
than a decade and gradually taught me to be fair and objective in my
consideration of my life in Christianity.
Unfortunately, God himself came up short in my
review. The more I studied the further I moved toward questioning the
reality of this super-being I had followed all of my life. Yet I moved
toward Deism rather than Atheism, because I just couldn’t abandon my
life-long belief in God. But Deism was also unsatisfactory in that
instead of a contentious God who demanded bloodshed and slaughter, the
deist God just created, shrugged his shoulders and walked off.
From there, I just didn’t know what to believe;
rocking back and forth between faith and fact. Agnosticism held a place
in my spiritual life for a small period of time but I felt adrift with
anger pulling me one way and the habit of identity with religion the
other. Finally, Atheism became a safe harbor from the vitriol and venom
of religion. But that meant to renounce the mystery of the earth and
the rivers, and I was not whole-heartily an Atheist.
Buddhism began drifting my way again and the books
came back off of my shelves and out of the stacks. That marked the end
of the life-long journey as a Christian. I was now part of a distinct
sector of the American population, what one author has called, a
“Done.” He described it as a new cohort out of American Christianity.
On December 20th, 2015, I took my vows as a student
of Buddhism. There were seven of us in the little retreat house in
Piedmont, North Carolina, and my new teacher was dressed in his brown
and black Zen robes. We began a short period of meditation and then
Bushi said I could begin the vows. After each one, He struck a brass
bowl that rang like a gong.
It only took one strike for me to understand the
sense of allowing the music to fade before reciting the next vow. It
became a sacred process for me: the vow, the gong, the silence and then
the next vow. Here are the vows:
However innumerable sentient beings are,
I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible defilements are,
I vow to sever them all.
However immeasurable the Dharma-gates (windows to the
essential quality of the self) are,
I vow to learn them all.
However unsurpassable the Awakened Way is,
I vow to achieve it.
There are just as many problems in Buddhism as in
Christianity but they are not my problems. My vows lead me far away
from them and the very first vow spiked the practice of the Middle Way
right to the earth. I cannot practice Buddhism with integrity without
working to ease the suffering of any living thing.
The vows brought my spiritual practice out of the
sky. The earth its self is alive and I have made a public commitment to
care for it.
The vows also proclaim something that Christianity
denies as a system: it is impossible to fulfill these vows. It is
admittedly a paradox that draws the truth of living in a universe of
paradox and points to the paradox of right living. Christianity rarely
admits to its followers that it is impossible to be Christ like.
Instead when trouble comes, fingers are pointed, churches split and the
Kingdom of Christ is crippled by what Christmas Humphreys (Humphries,
1974) calls, “flogging doctrine to a standstill.”
I looked up Quaker Buddhists and discovered that
some parts of Quakerism recognized astounding similarities with the
Middle Way. When I announced that I’d taken those vows in Meeting for
Business, the members of Fancy Gap Friends Meeting took it in stride
and I continued as the clerk of Monthly Meeting. One member was only
concerned that I might leave the meeting. That was all. That was
totality of questions from Friends in that meeting.
The move to Buddhism while tethered to Quakerism is
comfortable, allowing me to relearn to love the Society of Friends and
return to my love of the land. I still miss my mountain farm with its
history, but there is a river here in the Northwestern Piedmont of
North Carolina that I’ve come to enjoy. The Yadkin River is tiny
compared to the Delaware, Susquehanna and the Monongahela, but its flow
refreshes two states with its wanderings to the Atlantic. I cross it
often and ponder its muddy waters.
Several years ago, I was the hospice chaplain for a
man who had grown up with the Yadkin River. I coaxed him to tell the
stories he had about how the river fed them with fish, game, herbs and
wild greens. They were the descendants of poor settlers who remained
content with their lives on the land with farming and the Yadkin. I
also discovered the old weirs which are stone Vs that the Saura Indians
built to catch fish. They still catch an unsuspecting canoeist by
sucking him sideways into a line of stones meant to guide fish into
hand held baskets over 200 years ago. I love the Yadkin too. It’s a
part of my life here in North Carolina and fortunately for me, I get to
include it in my spiritual practice along with the Carolina red soil.
Once again, my spirit is planted in the land.
Bradbury, B. (1992). For The Quakers. (C. Ledingham, Ed.) New York, New York: Harper San Fancisco.
Deloria, V. (2003). God is Red. New York: The Putnam Group.
Fox, M. (2000). One River, Many Wells. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Holy Bible, King James Version. (1967). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hughes, L. (1994). The Negro Speaks of Rivers. (A. Rampersand, Ed. ) New York, New York, USA: Vintage.
Humphries, C. (1974). Exploring Buddhism. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Wikipedia. (n. d.). Retrieved February 2, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monongahela_River