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 stonework 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 sunroom. They tore down the high front porch leaving the exterior of the sunroom 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 to 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 Orthodoxy.
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 land.
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 riverboats 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, William Penn.
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, 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 seabag 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 ambulance.
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 doing Bradstock?”
“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 went inside.
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 own faith.
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 practiced.
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 teachings remain.
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 Middle East.
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 religion takes.
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 collapses.”
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 the builders.
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 environment.
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 home.
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 chaplain.
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