Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning: A Dialog

(Editorial note: My adult child and I are both active members of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]. A recent annual gathering of young adult Friends produced what Quakers call a minute: an official statement of a position. The minute has started circulating, prompting discussion. I have permission to post the statement to provide context for my thoughts in the essay that follows.)

A Concern Minute from Western Young Friends New Years Gathering

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning” – Luke 12:35 (NIV)

Enduring the past year’s national rhetoric, and watching the spread of violence and hateful speech, we see that we are in times that demand more from the Religious Society for any hope of love and justice and peace. As the Western Young Friends’ New Year’s Gathering, we call on meetings of every size and kind to consider:

How can we prepare for the times ahead? How can we join hands with other communities of faith, honor our tradition and history of action, and find courage in the face of fear? For five days at the closing of each year, this Gathering draws young Friends from along the West Coast and beyond to bring a small Quaker community into being. We create the community in which we wish to live, filled with peace and vitality. This takes loving labor, but we know, experimentally, that it is possible to live with intention while responding quickly to challenges. Living in this possibility, we call on our elders, national Quaker organizations, and meetings at all levels to help us prepare ourselves to be the right tool in the hand of the Spirit for our times. Because of these Gathered experiences, we understand that the process and strength that comes from unity can take time. This creates in us a sense of urgency to begin the work now. We offer our energy, ideas, and commitment to change; we ask that the broader Quaker community, including all branches, offer its wisdom and resources. We see faithful individuals and small groups acting on Quaker testimonies, with support from their respective meetings. But we of this Gathering hunger for action that we have not seen taken recently by bodies of Friends, actions equal or greater to anything we have done before. We ask that meetings heed this call to communal action, and discern their right collective contribution towards national and worldwide work. Although recent history shows the long arc bending toward justice, there is no guarantee that such a path is inevitable. It requires the work of many hands. George Fox asked: “What canst thou say?” We ask: “What can we do?”

fullsizeoutput_19c

My dear older child and friends,

You recently asked what you could do to respond to the climate in our country that has produced violence and hateful speech. Being good Quakers, you followed the Quaker process for discussing and reporting your concern. My Quaker meeting received what you wrote, and, being good Quakers, we discussed it.

We didn’t come up with an agenda, although we got as far as affirming that taking action promoted hope. The question has continued to nag me, and I felt utterly inadequate to answer it. Something has arisen in me, as we say in Quaker speak, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m not at all sure you will like it. But you know I have always talked about using your gifts, so I will use my gift of writing to think this through and explain it.

I think you and many others are right that the system we have in this country for setting national priorities is wrong. So change it. If the laws in this country are wrong, don’t disobey them. Change them. I’m edging up to saying don’t protest things, change them. But I think protest has a place, as a way of showing strength and solidarity. Changing things requires a lot more energy and follow-through than marching.

One of the things handed out at the Jan. 21 Women’s March (as I said, protest has a place) was a “what’s next” flyer. The first thing it said was “register to vote.” Only about a quarter of eligible American voters voted for the man now occupying the White House. The rest voted for someone else or just stayed home. Voter turnout was 56 percent, so lots of people stayed home. When Barack Obama won in 2008, turnout set a record at 61 percent. Little and undramatic things like showing up do count.

Next on the scale of undramatic things is changing who is in office right now. The landscape looks very dismal for progressives right now. One party runs everything right now at the national level, and completely controls 24 states. That makes uphill steep. One thing I learned was do-able during election seasons was showing up to make phone calls and to knock on doors to canvass. Knocking on doors, especially when the weather is nice, is one way to have conversations with people you don’t know and to hear their concerns. If you work for a candidate who wins, you play a part, however small, in that victory. I helped elect Harold Washington as the history-making first black mayor of Chicago in 1983.

A bigger next step is to run for public office yourself. Before Bernie Sanders ran for president, he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, population 38,000 in 1980. Paul Soglin, who is now the mayor of Madison, Wis., again, was first elected mayor in 1973, after having started on the city’s council in 1968 as a graduate student. Barack Obama was 35 when he began his career as an Illinois State Senator in 1997.

You quoted Luke 12:35: “Be ready dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.” I am suggesting public service, which used to be a venerable term, and choice, before it was redefined for polemical purpose as “career politician.” Public service assumes that there is a public, a life and a space we share in this country that brings different people together to use such things as public schools and public transportation and public parks. There are many things the public needs; better public officials is only one of them.

I am sorry I have no advice that is especially dramatic. Some of you may be called to chain yourselves to various fences surrounding various bastions of power, but don’t feel bad if that is not your call. I happen to be studying medieval spirituality right now, and one thing the great saints and sages of the era emphasize is humility. This classical virtue is out of style today, but it’s been on my mind lately as a counterweight to public bombast and dishonesty. With so much work to be done, everybody has a part to play, whether flashy or humble. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

I hope you get more responses. This is mine for now.

On hospitality

My seminary classmates and I recently concluded a two-week in-depth introduction to the Quran. These classes are called intensives for a reason; all one really has time for after class is reading, writing, eating, and sleeping. (OK, I did some laundry and got some exercise, too.) We closed our discussion with reflections about the experience of being a guest in someone else’s religious home.

The metaphor is rich. Depending on whom I am visiting, I might take off my shoes. I say thank you. I’m not rude. I don’t say the food is awful or the décor is ugly. I don’t offer alternative recipes that I find superior or suggest the place would be improved if they only hung different things on the wall. I find things to admire and enjoy. I offer compliments and curiosity: how did you do that? Can I get the recipe?

My host has welcomed me and graciously shared something of value. I recall a time of literally being a guest in another culture, when strangers in Castaner, Puerto Rico, opened their home and shared a meal. We spoke two different languages but connected through a translator and through hospitality. Hospitality is what opens doors for strangers and prompts hosts to give. Generosity is a matter of course and a matter of kindness.

1910_558109703_1149054_mughal_ewer_41  Hospitality is about turning those who aren’t known, and might be potential threats, into those who are known, thereby establishing rights and relationship. It’s the opposite of closing doors. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. As America now attempts to close its doors to perceived threats from the Middle East, it is acting inhospitably.

I did not set out to critique when I first began to reflect on the subject, only to explore a practice and situation that is easy to relate to. In the abstract, hospitality is about a set of rules for getting along: respect for and gratitude to a host, sustenance for a guest. It’s a mutual relationship that leaves both better off, and dials down the threat level as well.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” The Bible, which originated in the ancient Middle East, is replete with stories of hospitality (as well as its violation). The Quran is also aware of these ancient rules for obtaining sustenance and establishing safety. Hospitality establishes safe zones, it would seem.

There is a way forward in times larded with suspicion. Can I get the recipe?

Witness

When I was first trained at a journalism school in the 1980s, I was taught that journalism was about witnessing. I quickly learned that it wasn’t possible to see everything, but my eyes didn’t lie. I trained my eyes and ears and memory to see and write down and remember and write it down fast. The eyes don’t lie. It’s important to be there; journalists call it shoeleather reporting. It’s work; you don’t guess but you could be wrong. That’s why it’s called the first draft of history.

Here’s my first draft on the Chicago Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, and I am glad I didn’t have to file this right away. I was in the crowd of an estimated 250,000 marchers, standing in the street on Congress Parkway, a couple blocks south of whatever was going on by way of a program with speakers. There were signs, signs, signs, and the best ones were homemade. My favorite was “Toddlers against Trump,” written on cardboard in red crayon and smeared with crayon. YUUUUUGE MISTAKE was good. The Devil Wears Pravda. Paws Off Women’s Bodies (this from a pug in a backpack, with bonus joke #puglife). Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights. Reading the signs was better than hearing the program; they roared with wit. My own sign was pretty staid: Diversity is Reality.

img_1326

As has been reported, they did cancel the march but we marched anyway, flowing down Congress to Wabash to the main stream of marchers on Jackson to LaSalle. Yes, there were grandmas and strollers and a Muslim man whose sign said “I respect my wife and her rights.” I was attuned to the symbols of religion: clerical collars, a woman wearing a kippah and a prayer shawl and pushing a stroller. I’m white and I saw young and old African-American women, young and old white women, young and old white men. I didn’t see a lot of young African-American men, but there was much I didn’t witness in a crowd of a quarter-million.

This wasn’t my first demonstration, but it’s been a while. I decided fairly last-minute to go after figuring out how to travel so I could get to work immediately afterward. I thought the event would be predominantly angry, like my Facebook feed has been. But the crowd was cheerful and polite and I couldn’t stop laughing at the clever signs. It was easy to talk to strangers. For a while now I’ve been growing slightly fearful of strangers, anticipating some sort of hostility or contempt. On Saturday I chatted all the way back on the train with my seatmate, Cindy, a preschool teacher who had been to the march. I love being able to talk to strangers and smiling at them. The march was an antidote to some sort of social toxin that has been accumulating in my system, in the air somehow.

I marched to get my own energy back and so I wouldn’t miss history. I marched for my children; my older one Adrian has lately been the marcher, but she had to work. I marched for, and with, my best friend from college. I marched because black lives matter, especially the lives of my friends. I marched because I don’t want the planet trashed or the DPAL built or the EPA gutted. I marched because I don’t want my Muslim friends having to register. I marched for my journo friends and a world of real facts, not alternative ones. I marched because I don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. I marched because I love flowers and peaceful classrooms and playgrounds and streets for kids.

I cried for a little bit while marching. It felt like all these people had lifted a weight. We can do this. Si se puede.

Vision

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Muslims do it every year during the month of Ramadan. Catholics do it every year during the 40-day season of Lent. Fasting’s purpose is to get one to think less about appetites and more about God, about our dependence on God. For Catholics, the fast of Lent is also understood as a period of waiting. The resurrection is coming, but the road to it is long, and suffering is going to happen along the way.

I am fasting this week as part of #Fast4Power, which I stumbled onto through social media. It struck me as a good way to hang out with people of faith as our country moves into a new era that will be shaped by lots of people with whom I vehemently disagree. More bluntly, I fear a time when it is socially acceptable to be mean. But the point here is not to spin out apprehensions and anxieties but think about how to be ready to resist whatever marks a retreat from the goals of justice and common good.

I have found fasting to be harder than I anticipated. The rules for fasting resemble those for a Ramadan fast: no eating between sunrise and sundown. Muslims are also expected not to drink liquids, but that was not asked here. In spite of the short days of January, it was difficult to go grocery shopping while fasting, hard to not hanker for some of the fragrant pea soup being served at Quaker meeting meal on Sunday. Ironically enough, I find myself thinking more about food. But then I have a chance to think about the power of the thought and how it comes to preoccupy me. Recognizing that it’s a thought and not an actual hunger is helpful, and a step toward letting go of the thought or countering it. These mental machinations are familiar to me from meditation, so it is like using mental muscles to redirect the flow of thought.

I have also found it helpful to reflect on my favorite Bible verse: The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (For those who don’t recognize it or unfamiliar with Christian scripture, it’s Galatians 5:22-23.) My self-control needs work, and that muscle too is getting exercised. Self-control also comes to my mind as I reflect on and remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What kind of training, courage, and self-control did it take to face police dogs and police with clubs and fire hoses? And those were just the legal barriers. We could ask Congressman John Lewis, who was there. I wasn’t, but I was born, so this is not history but memory. I was part of the larger web of connectedness, learning in my youth about the world.

The other part of #Fast4Power is community. It’s not just about the self. Ramadan is supposed to work in part because it builds awareness of ummah – the world Muslim community. It has certainly helped that my husband is doing this. The #Fast4Power organizers, We Say Enough, have a daily online meeting to provide food for thought. Some servings have been better than others; the poetry has been especially palatable, and the teaching about community has made me more aware of my white individualism. It’s not my agenda, and I am here in solidarity. Thinking about what solidarity means has been a good lesson.

Which comes back to fasting. As a spiritual discipline, its purpose is to express solidarity with those who don’t eat well or enough – those who are involuntarily fasting. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are women and children, according to the World Food Programme.Reflecting on the 795 million people in the world who are chronically is perspective-giving, well beyond American shores. It’s a basic exercise in empathy: not everybody lives like me.

Community simply means we are in this together. Given the multiplicity of interest groups and issues these days, I am not sure who is included in “we.” But I know this is true, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” My pre-sunrise tea came from England, but it surely wasn’t grown there. Today’s #Fast4Power question dealt with vision. I dream of a world where everyone has a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruit of the spirit, to sustain them when they hunger.

What do you dream of?

Plan B

Last week while waiting in line for former President Jimmy Carter for a book signing, I met Rachel, Eddie, and Aisha. They were in front of me in line at 7:15 a.m. on a sunny July morning. The three of them, all 12 years old, are students in the High Jump Chicago program, an enrichment program for Chicago public school students with academic potential but limited economic means. They attend all summer and on Saturdays during the school year, for two years. The three, along with assorted family members, got up very early in the morning to make it from their cozy beds to a sidewalk in front of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The Secret Service needed to see the press at 7:30 in the morning as part of their security check of the premises, conducted four-and-a-half-hours before Carter arrived.

The press included these three students, dressed in distinctive blue T-shirts from High Jump, who prepared questions to interview Carter. To develop their questions, they had researched Carter and his time at the White House. Rachel knew, for example, that Carter was the first president to have installed a solar panel on the White House. Aisha had a more personal and disarming question: she intended to ask Carter what world problems kept him awake at night.

This summer field trip almost unraveled when the students and their Issues and Ideas teacher, Jill, were informed that Carter did not plan to take any questions. There followed discussion, some wheedling and pressing, retrenching. Well, I offered, this is part of a journalist’s lot: things don’t always go as planned. Write about what happens, regardless. That’s plan B.

The students retreated to the store’s Plein Air Café, since there were hours to go before Carter arrived. A compromise emerged: they were first in line when Carter arrived very punctually for his noon signing. By then the line stretched out the bookstore door and south down Woodlawn Avenue.

As it turned out, Carter did respond to questions. The 90-year-old former president is working on another book; pessimistic about prospects for Middle East peace (remember he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his peacemaking efforts through his Carter Center); and thinks of Donald Trump as a gift to Democrats. The three middle-schoolers were at the head of a line of about 600 people.

Image 2

This is my Plan B. I wrote it since my photo didn’t get used. But I also wrote it because it was an exhilarating day that reminded me of how much fun it is to listen to people’s stories, especially those people standing in line. Thanks, Rachel, Eddie, and Aisha. I hope you got a story too. My final advice: It pays to get up early sometimes.

Flowers on the Graves

Let’s rename Memorial Day: Reflection Day.

Let’s think about war and its costs. What we as an (American) society regard as honorable is the willingness to give one’s life in service of a higher cause. Those who conscientiously object don’t object to the prospect of giving their lives, but they don’t agree with the means (killing) used to attain the goal. Suppose we broadly and nobly call the goal “maintaining freedom.” The U.S. started two wars in the Middle East without having been attacked by those countries it invaded and called it maintaining freedom. Post-World War II, the U.S. has conflated “maintaining freedom” (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf.1 and Gulf.2, plus other police actions) with its aggressive military action in and against smaller countries. We stepped in to all these places. No wonder America looks like the Great Imperial Satan. We butt in a lot militarily. Russia did this recently with Ukraine and was economically sanctioned. But the U.S. is too big to sanction. From outside our frame of reference, this makes no sense.

Let’s think about war and its costs. Here in the U.S. we have veterans, usually coming from a certain socioeconomic class. We pay for war; we pay for those who have fought it after they are done fighting it as well as during the fighting. We pay and pay for our “wounded warriors” whom sophisticated medicine saves. The Congressional Budget Office notes that spending on veterans’ disability benefits tripled between 2000 and 2013.[1] We pay “opportunity costs”: things we don’t get because we have spent dollars on defense. So the size of our defense budget, which in 2014 exceeded $610 billion, also exceeded the defense spending of the next seven nations combined[2] (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, UK, India, Germany), which spent $601 billion. As I drive to Indiana, I see interstate roads crumbling as public monies go to provide for a bloated common defense. Our investment in railroad infrastructure lags well behind that of Japan and France (I think I remember reading China’s as well but cannot find the reference.) From outside our frame of reference, this makes no sense.

Let’s think about war and its costs. The human costs are incalculable. Let’s just keep it to World War II: 60 million military and civilian dead, equaling 3 percent of the world’s population in 1939. Random freakish facts[3]: the number of Polish dead – remember that the war began when Germany invaded Poland – exceeded the number of German military dead.

Katyn massacre, 1940, exhumation, 1943

Katyn massacre, 1940; exhumation, 1943

Depending on which estimates you accept, by some measures half the casualties of war were in the then-Soviet Union. One-third of Japan’s casualties were civilians. UK casualties were only slightly larger than those of the United States, and the UK was involved for two additional years. The greatest numerical losses were sustained by the Soviet Union and China. This is not a blur of numbers. 60 million dead is 60 million grieving mothers, unless of course the mothers were among the casualties. From any frame of reference, this makes no sense.

[1] http://www.cbo.gov/topics/veterans-issues

[2] http://pgpf.org/Chart-Archive/0053_defense-comparison

[3] Wikipedia is good for something: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties