The Importance of Context

Joe Franko

“He has brought me to his banquet hall
and his banner over me is love.”

– Song of Songs 2:4

“This is just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

— Gay Spirituality by Toby Johnson

On Being Gay and Quaker

Above my desk as I write, there is a statue of a horse, a blue horse, a cheap, thoroughly plastic, nondescript thing. When my son deals with the cleaning out of my house after I have moved on, he will see only something to sell for a quarter or fifty cents in the inevitable garage sale dispersal of the physical remains of my life. He will not give it a second’s glance. He will not know that I bought this horse in Arizona on a trip made to bury, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the ashes of one of my closest friends, Shar. Every time I look at it I’m reminded of her and our final trip together. My son will see only a cheap plastic horse. There are other things that will be important for him to keep, but not the horse.

Context is important. You should know that I am a gay, 60 years old, grandfather, trail runner, hang glider pilot and mathematician for whom the real world is sometimes puzzlement and all the time a wonder. I’ve been a Quaker now for about 40 years, coming into the Society of Friends through Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and am now a member of Pacific Yearly Meeting and Orange Grove Monthly Meeting.

I write this with some trepidation. It will be another coming out story for me. Forty years ago I came out as gay. This is my coming out story as a Christian. I’m not sure which has been a more difficult road. I didn’t walk down either path by choice. As a younger man I thought it was all by choice. Looking back on things now it seems that all the really important things in my life were only choices about timing and not about the journey.

I’m fond of telling the kids in my campus gay group that they always have a choice about when to come out, but that life will continue to press them to reveal who they really are. It’s how you’re quite certain you’re gay. It won’t go away. Each time you deny it, it diminishes you. That’s what the Christian right never quite gets. Every denial is a diminishment. Every denial is a chance to add to the store of self-hatred. Every missed opportunity for disclosure is a missed opportunity to be who I really am with those I really love. Coming out is about letting others know you truly love and trust them.

The irony of it is that every denial of my gayness is also a denial of an authentic relationship with God. Who can hide from God? Who can run from the hound of heaven that pursues us and seeks to be our beloved? What shall I answer to a God who seeks me behind every corner and demands openness to his love?

I get ahead of myself. Let me return to context. I am a mathematician. I have loved mathematics all my life. I was the kid in the cafeteria who did math problems and puzzles for fun. In the tenth grade I fell in love with mathematics in high school geometry. I got a “C” in first year algebra! But six weeks into geometry a light came on. I saw a beautiful world of Platonic forms. Proofs, the bugaboo of high school math students, came to me effortlessly. I found beauty and elegance in the shortest possible proof of a thing. I wound up writing a perfect regents exam, a thing I am still proud of 50 years later! I am thoroughly a mathematician.

Context is important. You also need to know that my home life was chaotic. My mother was a prostitute and my father was an unskilled, illiterate, laborer who left school at the age of 12 to dig ditches to help support his family. He was nine when his family came here from Italy. We were nominally Catholic but the police were over at the house a few times a year to deal with the chaos. I saw my father run after my mother with an axe. He broke my mother’s jaw. My twin sister took off after my father with a knife. She was raped multiple times by my uncle. My mother was in and out of mental hospitals with what would have been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. We were on welfare most of my growing up.

There are lots of stories here I could tell you, but the only one important at this point in my life is the beauty I found in a platonic world. I found in mathematics a perfect world without pain, perfectly structured and inevitable. One only had to choose the right axioms and postulates and the system was perfectly consistent. It would be years before I discovered Gödel’s Theorem, which brought the whole damn structure down!

[Ed. Note: “Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem, perhaps the single most celebrated result in mathematical logic, states that: For any consistent formal, computably enumerable theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory, can be constructed. That is, any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. There is much more to it, of course, and for further exploration, the reader would do well to begin with the Wikipedia entry on the Theorem, which is at:

A few years after discovering geometry, I became an atheist. I could not believe in a God who would allow sisters to be raped and parents to be violent to each other. Only a sadistic God would allow such a thing. So I denied God and if he existed, after I died I would spit in his face. I would gladly march into hell rather than be with a God who would create such a world. Plato replaced God and it would be years before I realized we are co-creators of this world. It was only a few years later, though, that I realized how little trust I should place in our government.

I bought the argument our government gave us about Viet Nam. I bought it so much I enlisted in the Navy and was assigned, eventually, to the USS O’Brien, a destroyer. I thought I was saving the world for democracy. Then I met Rick Thompson, a Quaker from Iowa. After his graduation from Iowa State University, Rick at first went to Washington DC, but then decided in late spring of 1972 to go to Viet Nam to work at the rehab center in Quang Ngai (an AFSC program).

We met in a children’s hospital in Viet Nam. We didn’t know each other long (barely a year), but long enough for Rick to help me deconstruct what I was now having troubles with. It became clear I was not saving the world for democracy, but instead helping in my own small way with the war effort. He didn’t judge me, but over the time I knew him he began to judge himself pretty harshly. There was enough of that going around in those days for everyone.

Rick was a tall, good looking, friendly guy like many of the Quaker youth I have met since then. Engaged, articulate, privileged, and committed to living out his Quakerism. To say he changed my life would be an understatement. He seemed to carry with him a quiet center. In the midst of chaos he carried within himself the most intimate relationship with God. Somehow in his growing up he learned to come to that deep place of peace that many Friends I have met since seem to have found.

And that deep place of peace was a challenge to both my life and my commitment to war. The amazing thing was that Rick never once confronted me. It was his incredible acceptance of me that won me over. I fell in love with him. This was the first example in my life of a spiritual relationship, made all the more important by the way many American youth were treating me. The words “baby killer” still haunt me.

My commanding officer was beside himself. He ordered me not to talk or correspond with Rick. The CO saw my questions, questions sparked by Rick’s acceptance of me, as disloyalty. The disconnect between what I thought I was fighting for, Rick’s analysis, and my CO’s attitude was stark. Rick wasn’t helping matters much as he struggled with confusion and anger at America. It was a difficult time. Honesty led to anger, frustration and rigidity. We both struggled with it.

Rick would die in Viet Nam. They say his plane went down in a storm, but I believe “friendly fire” was responsible. I have no evidence for that. Perhaps it is my symbolic way of coming to terms with his death. To this day, when I think of his death I tear up. More than anyone I knew, he struggled to come to that place where he loved so completely there was no room left for hatred. I needed to find that place behind his anger and frustration.

Eventually I asked my commanding officer for conscientious objector status and a chance to get a degree from Iowa State University. It wasn’t easy. The Navy refused to talk with me about it. At first they ignored me, then they threatened to ship me off to the most dangerous of duties in the Navy, the river boat patrols. I knew what my chances of surviving that were. I didn’t care. What they did or did not do seemed to not have any connection with me at all.

I thought of going to Canada. Instead, I became very sick. I had a extremely high fever for which there seemed to be no cause. I became delirious, began hallucinating and was hospitalized. Finally after a few days, the fever broke, and with it any connection to my former life. I simply refused to return. I decided not to go to Canada and to simply wait for them to arrest me.

When arrest did not come, I thought I was a deserter. I lived with the thought that I had probably been given a dishonorable discharge or might be arrested at any time. I forgot about it and went on to live my life. Years later, after my mother’s death, I found among her possessions that the Navy had given me an honorable discharge. To this day I have no idea why. It’s a complete mystery and how like it was of my mother to not ever tell me!

So I worked on getting a degree and learning more about Quakerism. I joined Rick’s Meeting in Ames and I eventually got a degree in English from Iowa State University. I went to graduate school there and became a father. Later I got a graduate degree in mathematics, but that’s another long story. After a long life it becomes a choice about which of our many stories to tell people. I’m trying to place my Quakerism in context, so I’m leaving out the stories that might be more interesting. You’ll have to ask me about the details when you see me.

I finally was able to pursue a degree in mathematics when I got over feeling I wasn’t a very good mathematician. It was a long struggle. Suffice it to say my mathematics and the war in Viet Nam planted me firmly in the Universalist camp. I guess I’d call myself at the time an agnostic or Buddhist Friend. When I thought of God I thought of God as being the sum total of all possibilities. As a logician I learned Gödel’s Theorem and realized that in any sufficiently complex system there will always be true things which can not be proved to be true and false things which can not be disproved. Mathematically, God is in the space beyond proof.

I sometimes wish that were enough for me. I find great strength in Universalist Friends who do not need a personal God and who are able to sense the movement of the Spirit through the World. I haven’t been able to find that kind of strength in my life. The first time I fell in love with a man and it was reciprocated, I realized that I needed a more personal God.

I had always heard that God was love, but I had no idea what that meant. I had gone for a few months to a Hindu monastery in Chicago. I also played with Zen Buddhism, attending several week long sesshin, or periods of intensive zazen meditation. Yet my friendship with Rick, perhaps my love for Rick, shaped my religious beliefs in ways I can only guess at. He showed me what it meant to give one’s life for love.

The first time I had sex with a man, months after Rick died, I stayed awake all night in wonder. So this was what it was to love. For the first time I understood what it might mean to give one’s life for another. It suddenly made sense. I walked around on air for a week. Not only was I not racked with guilt, I floated on a sea of love. Forever after, sex and religion would be intimately connected for me. The vague concept of Christian love now had meaning and I fell in love with Jesus as I learned to love other men. It has been that way with me. Each human relationship, each experience of touching another human being, has deepened by longing for Jesus.

Later I fell in love again, only with a woman. I learned that love seemed to have no boundaries in my life and I began to sense a great need to connect with the Love that underlies all creation.

Context is important. Perhaps now that you know a little about me you can understand why I can not find such Love without a belief in a personal God in whose arms I hope to surrender through death, as a bride relaxes into her bridegroom’s arms. Each relationship in my life has made Jesus’ embrace more and more real.

I recognize this is my journey and no one else’s. Each of us has our own faith journey and I think we get into trouble when we try to make everyone else walk down the same path. There are many paths and all of them involve running quickly down easy trails, only to turn the corner and find a rocky section with many miss-steps and stumblings. I find great strength in a personal Christ who is for me a companion on the path, who has endured the pain of the cross and so can comfort me in my own pain, who understands that Love demands the acceptance of pain as part of the journey. For me, Christ calls me to this radical discipleship.

At the risk of sounding like a born-again, bible-thumping, Campus-Crusade-for-Christ person let me explain a few aspects of this radical discipleship and my relationship with this fellow named Jesus. It is based on Christ as patient lover, the bridegroom in the bridal chamber. Christ is a lover who calls me to himself, who seeks me out, who surprises me even in the bridal chamber by his gentleness. He is patient, loving, and accepting. At the end of a really tough day, I am totally buoyed up by contemplation of this acceptance. I am loved for who I am. There is no demand on what I must be or what rules I must follow. Christ’s embrace is free and unencumbered.

Not that the loving of Christ does not change one’s life. As Thomas Kelly says, one finds oneself in a new relationship to things and people, not from any precepts laid upon one, but from a reciprocation of Christ’s love. The fact that I experience Christ’s love makes me more of a lover, so things that would block love naturally drop away. Simplicity becomes an opening to more of Christ’s embrace, especially through connection with other people. Time away from the world becomes a way of experiencing Christ’s love without interruption.

As a bridegroom is filled with desire and passion, Christ’s embrace is passionate. In return Christ demands passion. Lukewarmness to Christ’s love is almost certainly not a part of Christianity. One of the radical ideas of Jesus was that one could live a life of passion in the world, but not be of the world.

Reading the stories of Jesus it is clear to me that Christ demands nothing from us except to be passionate in our love of him, following him wherever His love leads us. And His love does not lead us to pray in public, but to return His passionate embrace in private, in the bridal chamber.

Now you know why this essay makes me a little nervous. It is so public! Words are a difficult medium for expressing love. Only in the private act of contemplation can I fully return Christ’s love, expressing all it means to me. Working on peace and justice in the world is an imperfect expression of that love. Imperfect, but important to learning how to love. Fox got it right when he said the letter is unimportant. It is the Spirit behind the words that matter.

Another aspect of radical discipleship is hope. I must believe that no matter what things look like now, no matter how awful the times, because of Christ’s love there is redemption. It will all work out. One of the things most frustrating to me about Quakerism is that I meet so many Quaker pessimists, folks who lament the state of the world, the environment, etc.

Now I’m not saying the world is not in bad shape, especially in the last 8 years, but pessimism leads to burnout and doesn’t reflect a hope in the movement of Christ’s Spirit. With God all things are possible, my grandmother used to say. As deeply in love with Christ as I’ve become, that reflects a very important aspect of my Quakerism. Quakerism without hope is puerile and joyless. Love leads to hope and hope leads to joy.

Without joy, we don’t have the energy that love requires of us to do our work in the world. Joy gives us the energy for radical discipleship and also brings us into a new relationship with our world. We want to work on the environment because the earth is our bridal chamber. When the bridegroom walks through the doors how awful it would be for him to find the mess we have made of things he has freely given us. For me environmental work comes out of the joy of preparing the bridal chamber, yet it’s very difficult to find anyone working on the environment that brings such joy to the task. Without hope such work would be impossible for me.

Even more important is Christ’s model of love. Radical discipleship says I must love everyone, as He did. My definition of who is my family must get bigger. As Christ loves me so I must love the world with the same radical acceptance. As I deal with others, I must deal with the Christ who is within them, ignoring the foibles and faults as Christ ignores my foibles and faults. Christ came to be with the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. They are my family, as they were my mother’s family.

One of the strengths I find in Christocentric Quakerism is that it is based on a God become human. A God who relinquishes “power over” so that we might experience “power through.” Ultimately Christianity requires us to believe in the power of God to become human. What an audacious concept. Why would any God want to become human?

My mathematical brain once demanded a Universalist Spirit, the universal force that Einstein meant when he talked of God not playing dice with the universe. It’s clear when we look at the universe that it is truly amazing that mathematical laws apply at all! Why should this mathematics, which is, after all, a man-made invention, be the language of the universe? That idea was the foundation of my Universalist spirit. It fills me with awe. The universe will continue even if we blow ourselves to damnation.

But that’s the problem. Without the Spirit of Christ I find the universe fills me with awe, but is essentially awful! Radical discipleship demands a meaning that can only be filled by Christ, whose love for me and you is the meaning. Why should this God become human? Only to love us more fully and completely.

It is said that no greater love has anyone than that they are willing to lay down their life for another. I think a far greater love is shown by a God who would embrace becoming fully human and only then experience death. In the Bible, Jesus is far more often referred to as the Son of Man than as the Son of God. Radical Discipleship demands me to love the Son of Man, with all the sacrifices that might bring. Loving the Son of God is a totally different story, filled with power and patriarchy. This God I worship chose to live a human life, to experience my failure, my poor background, my death and the sneers of those for whom no good could come from Bethlehem, or from Brooklyn.

I have not yet spoken of the cost of radical discipleship, but I am reminded of the struggle my Meeting had before we were able to unite on gay marriage. It was a struggle that often was so painful it made me wonder whether or not I wanted to continue being a Friend. Many times I asked myself whether or not I wanted to be part of this group which often said things and didn’t even realize how hurtful they were to me and to others who were gay. It was a very painful time.

I have to say, though, that what kept me Quaker was my Iowa Conservative Yearly Meeting background, expressed through Rick Thompson’s life and my belief that acceptance of my cross, for love’s sake, was a fundamental part of my faith. Though a member of Pacific Yearly Meeting now for almost thirty years, the foundation of my faith is my belief in the radical Christ, the Christ of the Cross, the Christ who promises that Love will triumph over pain and that the process of seeking for real unity is often a painful and prolonged personal conversion process. Such a conversion process is a fundamental part of my life as a Quaker. The only God worthy of adoration is one who understands my pain and my humanity and through love assures me that Love will triumph in my life and in the world.

How does this fit with being in PYM? I’m not sure. It helps that here in the west we are fiercely independent. We hold tightly to the idea that faith is a personal thing, between each individual and God. I think that more and more folks are finding Jesus helpful to their spiritual life, but even those who give Jesus short shrift would say that each person’s faith is a personal matter and that we come together in Meetings to support each other’s spiritual journey.

We are a very suspicious of any Friends who would say, “This is what makes you a Friend.” We hold to what is written in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: “Only what we have valued and truly made our own, not by assertion but by lives of faithful commitment, can we hand onto the future. Even then, we must humbly acknowledge that our vision of the truth will, again and again, be amended.”

Context is important

I’ll end this essay by going back to the beginning and talking about my friend, Sharlene. Shar was my office mate for twenty years, but more importantly she was a fellow adventurer. We bicycled across the country together, we dropped down in to dark caves, we went kayaking in the ocean and the bay, we went hang gliding and paragliding and ran 100 mile races in the mountains. We pushed each other to live life completely, taking risks, enjoying pushing ourselves mentally and physically. We shared thoughts of God on the long adventures. Nothing like 100 mile bicycle ride through cornfields and head winds to make one turn to talk of religion to while away the hours.

Two years ago Shar got sick. The diagnosis was liver cancer. I asked Shar to let me move into her guest bedroom so that I could help take care of her. I told her we’d been on so many adventures together that I wanted to have one more adventure with her.

She called me up in the middle of a very scary night and asked me to come over. We agreed I should move in the next day.

What a privilege it became to take care of her for the next six months, to walk her up to death’s door, where she was absolutely convinced she would meet Jesus. In the last week I spoke often to her about her job of relaxing into God’s arms. We cried together and laughed together and sang “See that girl come-a walking down the street singing ‘Do Wah Diddy, diddy dum diddy do.’” When she was no longer conscious and was near death, seven of us sat by her bedside and sang that to her. That’s the kind of hymn they can sing at my memorial service!

Shar’s simple faith through it all challenged me. My prayers became much simpler. In fact, I have only one prayer I pray now. “Lord, make my faith as simple as Shar’s!” Both of us were mathematicians, both lived a life of the intellect. But somehow Shar understood what I had not:

You must be as a child again to enter the Kingdom. We do not need to give up the intellect, but like Shar I find myself needing to simplify even my faith, in the hope that one day I, too, might relax into the arms of my Bridegroom. An hour after Shar died I was still waiting for the undertakers to come. I was in an upstairs bedroom. I thought I heard a car so I went out to the landing and looked down at Shar. Damn if she didn’t have a smile on her face which wasn’t there before. I knew I wouldn’t believe it later, so I took a picture of her. I’ve put it with some of her ashes and some mementos of her life.

Some will say it was the muscles in Shar’s face in the aftermath of death, but I know as clearly as I can that she had, indeed, finally relaxed into His arms. Perhaps my Quakerism might also become a sign of a faith grown simple, so that I, too, may die with a smile on my face, assured of my meeting the Bridegroom.

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