#Fast4Power

I’ve been thinking about food more than usual today. I started fasting as part of a movement called #Fast4Power. I would certainly not have done it alone. I joined because I was looking for a group of people who wanted to take a morally principled stand of resistance to the bad things happening in our country today. Uppermost in my own mind because of the timing is the inauguration next week as president of our country of a man who brings out the worst in people and who doesn’t really seem to have any principles. He’s a bully who does what we teach our children not to do.

But I don’t especially want to rant. I joined the fast because I am tired of ranting; it wears me out to do it and to listen to it. My Facebook feed is a rant factory. Paradoxically enough, however, I learned about this online and have joined a group of strangers, hoping to be in the company of people who are fasting instead of ranting.

Fasting is a physical and spiritual discipline. It’s a demand, but not mean. It seems to me to be like a form of active meditation, in which I become more aware of what’s going on with me: I am looking forward to the last of the Christmas fudge… The rules of the fast are only during daylight hours, like Muslims during Ramadan. What a snap, a thought to myself: it’s January, and the days are only eight hours. If it’s too hard, I can just stay in bed, right?

But it also gives me a little extra time – no breakfast, no lunch – to be reflective. Food is important to me; it provides pleasure as well as nutrition. Fasting is a little practice in saying “no, thank you.” In being aware of routine and autopilot, of the difference between need and want.

Joining a group of strangers for an online meeting was not as weird as I anticipated (who put the I in introvert? I did!). The group I saw was mixed and people spoke from different religious orientations, which is exactly what I had hoped for. A lot of the talk was about the group effort. I do feel more committed, knowing others are doing this.

I have a picture in my mind of Martin Luther King speaking and acting from a moral center. He is my hero for that reason, and I think he was effective for that reason, and I am not alone in that opinion. It gave him strength. If fasting with a group of strangers helps to nudge the movement for social justice or resistance just a little more toward a moral center, it’s not that hard. The fudge can wait. I can wait.

On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.

 

The Last Roses (I Think)

I have hung up my garden hat after planting another row of garlic. It’s been nice, in a freaky sort of way, to postpone freezing weather in this part of the Midwest. But it’s unnatural, although maybe the natural order is changing a wee bit in this, which is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. Astonishingly, I did harvest a few tomatoes in rather paler colors than their intense August hues, and my roses are still blooming. Today 72 degrees. Tomorrow, a low of 32, they say, followed by lows of 25 degrees on the weekend. So I cut the last roses of fall to bring them in and shelter them. They are too beautiful to blast.

lastroses

Gardeners know that seasons change, nothing lasts, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. Poets and reflective people are inclined to see plenty of metaphors in gardening and the march of the seasons. I love it that there are so many meanings, diverse ways of understanding what is beautiful and what is natural. I also love it that there is a science to gardening. There are things you must do: I need to water the new hackberry tree planted on my lawn and not just wax romantic about how only God could make a tree. God may have made it, but this particular tree came from a local nursery and the city planted it and it is now up to me to tend it. The poets and philosophers need to join hands with those wearing gardening gloves. There is always work to be done. It just differs by season.

Wailing is a start

Yesterday I was too tired and too viscerally scared to write. My fear relates to fascism, which frightened me a lot when I was growing up. People being mean really scares me and throws me back to feeling young and helpless. I had already imagined our neighbors down the street with seven Trump signs on their lawn banging loudly on my door, coming to get me.

I see a lot of fear from my friends on Facebook: pictures of a swastika already spotted. A lesbian friend insulted on the street by a stranger. African-American women feeling numb and bone-weary. The weary need to rest and take time to mourn. (I hope Hillary takes a little vacation, too.)

I took a long walk on an insistently sunny day and got some sleep after a stressfully long election night vigil. I also thought about biblical lamentation; never mind that my biblical studies teacher suggested that there is a difference between lament and complaint. Be that as it may, I stumbled on a strong lament/wail/complaint from the Psalms, a wonderful compendium of praise and curse, gratitude and despair:

…As for the gang leader of those who surround me,

Let their mischievous words cover them; smother them in trouble.

Let hot coals fall from heaven upon them

And cast them into the roaring fires.

May they sink into the muddy marsh from which there is no return.

Let no liar find a home anywhere in the land;

Let evil hunt down the violent man and do him in quickly. …     Ps. 140: 9-11

I understand my Bible better this morning: wailing can help. There is a time for that too.

wailingwallart

And then … I have also begun thinking about what I am called to do: what’s my task that uses my talents and not only takes energy but gives it back? I can stand with my journalist friends and advocate for a vigilant press because we’re really going to need eyes on someone who has a track record of dishonesty – he reminds me of Richard Nixon – and who has worked hard to vilify the press in order to undermine its credibility. I am also starting to see fake news stories, which really sows confusion. Lots of forces are at work here, actually, and this is a good analysis for those interested. I just signed up to be a supporter of the Guardian , which I had been reading for free. The press is important; freedom of the press ended up being a constitutional right for a reason.

That argument is a little more abstract than I wanted to make. A better question to pose and answer is how can I keep heart (especially since I had a really expensive cardiac repair job just this summer)? A lot of my progressive friends are angry and calling for organizing. I don’t think that is my call; anger tends to hinder me and make me inarticulate. It’s a tool I don’t use well. I think love and empathy are better tools. These things are lower on the list of progressives, derided as hippie-ish or kumbayah in our postmodern era. Yet one of the reasons many of us find Donald Trump objectionable is what appears to be his total lack of empathy  – the ability to imagine and respect what someone else experiences. As a new chaplain, I’ve had the opportunity to study empathy; it can be cultivated.

I was reminded about empathy when my friend Jana Riess posted Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers in a column she wrote about post-election trauma. To that I would add as a Quaker: what is your gift? What is your call? What can you do that will sustain you, your neighbors, and the planet? There’s a lot that needs doing. Pick the need and sign up and in.

Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.

dog-breeds

Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.

Walking cheerfully

I have been losing sleep over the election. I am really, really afraid of one candidate. I’m more than happy with the other, despite some important disagreements. I’ve been wondering what is my responsibility besides voting. I’ve wrestled with writing about this, since I have some talent at communicating in writing. But there is a real tsunami of opinion out there, and so one more view hardly matters. On the contrary, in this election, restraint is a good, mature thing; thinking “I alone have the answer”  is hubris at best, narcissism at worst.

Like so many others, I really liked Michelle Obama’s speech and her idea that this is not about us: this election is about our children’s world. And I’m a little worried about the children, and not just my two. I’m worried that we’re not leaving them a better place, but instead we are bequeathing a lot of crushing personal debt, a climate-challenged planet, fear of strangers who speak different languages, and soul-numbing cynicism. That last really bothers me.

I heard a lot of great speeches at the convention. Although I normally find good oratory inspiring, I must admit its charm is wearing thin. And this article  really got me re-thinking the way I value an inspirational speech. What about getting things done? What about problem solving?

For me, for my children, for my planet, I want solutions. I want to read about them. I want to vote for somebody who sweats the details of getting things done. For my own part, I need to concentrate on things getting fixed, or getting better, given enough commitment and ingenuity. I need to shift my focus from a relentless litany of what’s wrong without denying what is wrong and from jejune despair that “the system is rigged.” The system is big and complicated and contains a lot of people who unfortunately don’t think like me.

More concretely: this is also a way of practicing the Quaker discipline of “walking cheerfully over the world” . This is what I am going to do during the election season: call attention to solutions. If I can’t find any, it might just be cute kittens or pretty flowers. (I thought of doing this while sitting by my flowers.)

I’m kicking off by celebrating an amazing planetary healing (it’s yuuge): the hole in the earth’s ozone layer is closing because we banned CFCs. The lead scientist who published about this said: “Aren’t we amazing humans?”

Bonus: here are some flowers:IMG_1173.JPG