Thursday, January 7, 2016

Becoming a Quaker: The First Step

After a year of attending Quaker meetings, I've decided to take the next step and apply for membership. For me, this is a big undertaking. I don't join things, in general. But I feel at home with the Quakers in a way I haven't with any other spiritual community.

I read from others about what to put in a letter requesting membership, and there really was no consensus. Some people said they wrote three pages, while others said they wrote three sentences. I suppose it comes down to how much of yourself you want to introduce ahead of time versus how much you want the clearness committee to handle. For me, I thought it was be wise to give a deeper overview of myself, since I really don't know anyone at the meeting very well. My letter, when it's read at the next meeting for business, will give everyone a chance to find out who I am.

When I handed my letter to the clerk, he reminded me of the process, including the committee I'll meet with. He said they'd ask me "the tough questions" before any decision was made on my joining. I'm not sure what to expect, and I halfway anticipate that my request will be rejected, but I at least have to try.

Here's the text of my letter.

~ ~ ~

Dear [clerk],

I would like to apply for membership at University Friends Meeting.

I’ve rewritten this letter several times. I finally decided to focus on how I came to admire the Quaker way, in the context of what I’ve been seeking in a spiritual tradition. I hope it offers some insight into what led me here and conveys my sincerity about wanting to become a member of UFM and the larger family of Friends.

Following are a few points explaining what I’ve been seeking in a spiritual path:

One that is rooted in the Christian tradition but allows people the room to draw inspiration from other spiritual traditions and practices. I've been a spiritual seeker for most of my adult life. My journey has been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, the Transcendentalists, Alan Watts, Indian thinkers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti and Paramhansa Yogananda, Catholic social activists such as Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, and the great peacemakers of our age, including Gandhi and Dr. King. Those influences, along with other life experiences, have caused my views to evolve to the point that I could no longer return to the Christianity of my youth. Yet I began to feel a strong pull, about a year ago, to reconnect in some way with my spiritual roots.

In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages spiritual seekers to practice in a way that could reconnect them with their original faith traditions. I thought about those words often through the years, wondering how that would ever be possible for me. I visited a UU church, but it wasn’t what I was looking for, even though I found myself largely in accordance with the UUs’ guiding principles. Finally, everything changed when I discovered the Quakers. The inclusiveness, silent worship, absence of clergy, and commitment to equality and peace were what immediately drew me in, and as I learned more about the Quakers, I became more convinced that I’d found where I belong.

That was a little more than a year ago. In my eagerness to find the spiritual community that felt like the best fit for me, I attended five different meetings in the area (UFM, Salmon Bay, South Seattle, Eastside, and Tacoma) and visited two Quaker churches (North Seattle, and East Hill in Kent), in what I jokingly called my Puget Sound Quaker Tour. The churches were not for me, but I felt at home in unprogrammed worship. Each meeting had its own particular dynamic, but UFM was where I felt the most comfortable.

One that, instead of providing me with ready-made answers, invites me to ask questions, giving my spiritual understanding room to grow, mature, and change as needed, rather than stifling it with dogma. I was raised Catholic, but whenever I had questions about what I was told to believe — and there were many — those questions were discouraged and I was told to take things on faith. That didn't work for me then, and it doesn't now. I want to be challenged. I want the freedom to sit with a question and explore its meaning and ramifications. I'm not even so interested in finding the answer as I am in what doors the question may open, and I find the space to do that in the quiet of Quaker worship. To that end, I find that Quaker queries are a bit like Zen koans, in that they force me out of my comfort zone and make me confront my beliefs and assumptions, lest I grow complacent in thinking I have all the answers. I’ve found that whenever I think I have all the answers is exactly when I need to start asking questions again.

Over the past year, I’ve immersed myself in Quaker reading: George Fox’s journal, John Woolman’s journal, the writings of William Penn, and even contemporary authors such as Philip Gulley. I’m also a subscriber to Friends Journal. I have a copy of North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, and my sister in England, knowing I was interested in the Quakers, sent me a copy of the Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Faith and Practice. I’ve learned much over the past year, and I look forward to learning more from all here who are longtime Friends.

One that promotes the equality of all people and endeavors to make the world we live in a better, more peaceful place. I’m often dismayed when all around me I see people who are so focused on their belief in another world that they forget to live in this one, or when I see people promoting anger, hatred, divisiveness, and violence in the name of their god, such that they forget to love their neighbors and their enemies, to help the broken, and to do as they would wish to have done to them.

Radical equality, a commitment to peace, and an abiding belief in human goodness are values that resonate with my own worldview, and I see them reflected in the Quaker family. I also believe in the power of love, kindness, humility, and forgiveness. I think those values are sorely lacking in today’s world, and I find myself attracted to people and groups that support and promote them.

As domestic and global events began to take a dark turn recently, I thought about George Fox’s ocean of light and love that flowed over the ocean of darkness. I feel we desperately need to find that ocean of light and love today, but I don’t think we can find it without putting in the work ourselves to make it happen. A cartoon I read recently had a man looking around in despair at the state of the world, and he said he almost asked God why he allowed so much pain and suffering. But then he decided not to ask, because he was afraid God would ask him the same question. In other words, it’s up to us to make things better.

I know that it’s incumbent on me to at the very least set an example for others to follow, and ideally to actively be the change I wish to see in the world. I have a 4-year-old girl, and I want to be an example for her, as well as leave her a world that’s a little bit better than how I found it. So I’m doing all of this as much for her as I am for myself or anyone else. But I’m aware that I can do more. My service work has consisted mostly of making financial and material contributions to charity, including monthly donations to the American Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders. Though that may not be much, it’s something I can build upon, and I hope it speaks to my commitment to do what I can to help build a better world.

I don’t know in what ways I can contribute to the life of the meeting. I do know, however, that I want to, in whatever way possible. I’ve come a long way from my Midwestern Catholic upbringing, and it’s been a long journey looking for my spiritual home. I feel happy and fortunate to have finally found that home among the Religious Society of Friends. 

There’s much more I could say, but for now I hope this is enough. I’m happy to share more about myself and answer any questions you may have.

I look forward to getting to know the members of the meeting, and I hope you will consider allowing me to join as a member of UFM.

Thank you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

George Fox, Meet Siddhartha Gautama

Long before I fell in with the Quakers, I was attracted to Buddhism. I have stacks of books on Buddhism, from scriptures to commentaries to descriptions of the various sects and how they practice. After growing up with a very rigid Catholicism, Buddhism felt liberating, and I wanted to learn all I could. I devoured information on the tradition in all its forms. Buddhism explained to me why humanity suffers, and what we can do about it. It taught me the value of kindness, not just for its own sake but for how dramatically it can change us and the world. In short, it put the power for transformation directly in my own hands.

I wanted to dedicate myself to the Buddhist path. I tried many, many times to dedicate myself to a regular meditation practice, understanding that going within oneself to cultivate mindfulness was the key that unlocked everything else. Once you can find peace within yourself, you can begin to radiate that peace out to the world around you.

But it never really stuck. I think I simply lacked the discipline and the courage to stick with a meditation practice. And I say "courage" because when you're sitting silently with yourself, you eventually begin to unearth things about yourself that the noise of the world has allowed you to shut out and ignore. Self-examination is not always a pleasant endeavor, to say the least. But beyond that, there was the physical discomfort of maintaining a meditation posture for a prolonged amount of time, and there was the constant battle with what the Buddhists call one's "monkey mind," that part of your brain that jumps incessantly from idea to idea, like a monkey swinging from one branch to the next. Your monkey mind often gets louder the more you try to quiet yourself down. When all you want to do is count your breaths and let your mind relax, Monkey Mind reminds you that you have to take the trash out, or it replays that conversation you had with your child yesterday.

Aside from all that, though, there was always something that felt distancing about Buddhism. I never really felt it was something I could claim as my own. It felt like something exotic that I was borrowing from another culture. It didn't belong to me. Right or wrong, I always felt as if I was appropriating something not intended for a Western Caucasian.

But I continued to read about Buddhism as a philosophy, and over the years I drifted away from putting the teachings into everyday practice. I accumulated more spiritual influences along the way, including Taoism and Confucianism, and the teachings of Gurdjieff and Paramhansa Yogananda and Alan Watts, among others. But as fascinating as I found all that I read, I never really embraced any of it as a guidepost for living. The Tao Te Ching probably came the closest. But in the end, I was left feeling frustrated, and my agnosticism grew into atheism and a feeling of apathy toward spirituality.

That's pretty much where I was when I stumbled across the Quakers in 2014. My spiritual life began to open up again as I found something that in a way felt like Buddhism, in its quiet, contemplative meetings for worship, but was rooted in the Christianity I grew up in. It felt more familiar. I finally felt as if I belonged in a spiritual community.

And now, as fate would have it, Buddhism makes a re-entry into my life.

It all began around this time last year, when I saw that the Seattle Insight Meditation Society was offering a refuge and precepts ceremony for anyone who wished to come. Though lacking formal rites of passage such as baptism and confirmation, Buddhism does offer the taking of refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community). Once you've taken that vow, you can hold yourself out as a Buddhist if you wish. The ceremony for taking refuge usually also includes vowing to hold to the Five Precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct (which is to say that we avoid using sex to harm ourselves or others, not that we agree to a list of moral shalts and shalt-nots), not to use harmful speech, and not to use intoxicants that can compromise our mindfulness. (The Quakers aren't keen on reminding people these days that they were instrumental in the temperance and prohibition movement. Their hearts were in the right place, though -- like the Buddhists, they desired for people to maintain a clarity of mind.)

I thought about going to that ceremony last year. I was thinking that maybe making my Buddhism "official," so to speak, would help me warm up to the teachings, embracing them and bringing them alive in my life, rather than admiring them at arm's length but never engaging in them. Ultimately, I decided not to go.

But the ceremony came around again this year, and I decided I'd give it a try this time. Even as I'm immersing myself in Quakerism, I thought it could only enhance my spiritual life to try to welcome in once more this tradition that's been a part of my life for over a decade, in varying degrees of importance. If I went to the ceremony and it still didn't feel right, maybe I could finally put Buddhism behind me. But maybe something would click and I could incorporate it into my spiritual path.

There were probably about 200 people at the ceremony. I dusted off my neglected zafu at home, thinking I may need to sit on it for meditation, but as it turned out, most of the seating area consisted of chairs, with only a small section near the lecturer set aside for those who wished to perch on a meditation cushion. So I returned my zafu to the car, settled in to a chair, and quieted myself for 40 minutes of meditation.

Almost immediately, the old feeling I used to get when I sat down to meditate washed over me. It's not a particularly pleasant feeling. Part of me feels very anxious -- and it's not even an anxiety I consciously work myself into. It feels as if it rises up all on its own, as if my mind is going into a defensive fight-or-flight mode, trying to fend me off from digging into whatever it's trying to keep suppressed. Yet another part of me feels open and receptive. After I meditate, I always come away with kind of a light-headed, fuzzy, floaty feeling, as if I'm being transported off to another dimension. And these two opposing forces do battle inside me, when all I'm trying to do is count my breaths and calm the monkey mind.

I was also reminded of how different meditation is from Quaker silence. Meditation is a much more solitary, inward-focused pursuit, whose goal is self-cultivation. Quaker silence is more active and more communal in nature. We sit quietly as a group, allowing ourselves to be receptive to any messages that we feel the spirit may be trying to communicate through us. There is no disciplined posture to maintain, and there are no mantras or counting of breaths -- just a calm, receptive, contemplative silence.

After the meditation, the lecturer, Rodney, gave a talk on the importance of sangha in growing on our spiritual path. He emphasized that he himself downplayed for a long time the crucial role that a spiritual community plays in our personal growth, and he eventually came to see that it's nearly impossible to carry on a spiritual path as a solitary pursuit, pointing out that even Jesus in the Bible talked about how he was there in spirit with his followers whenever two or more people were gathered in his name.

That was a point that stuck with me. Ever since leaving the Catholicism of my youth, I've been a solitary spiritual path, with nobody to share it with me. I had a friend once who was involved pretty heavily in Buddhism, but he eventually abandoned his Buddhist path, leaving me again on my own. That was hard for me, because I know I do better when I'm surrounded by like-minded people. When I get away from that community, I easily get derailed. Cynicism tends to swallow me up, and I get short-tempered, intolerant, and judgmental. Some people need a support community to keep them focused; I seem to be one of them.

So I wondered: If I did come back to Buddhism, would I try to pick a community to belong to somewhere in or around Seattle, the same way I've settled in with one particular Friends meeting? I couldn't make this community mine, because Rodney's talks are on Tuesday night, and I work on Tuesday night -- I had to take the night off to go to this particular gathering. But I could do this, right? I'm a hardcore introvert with severe social anxiety, but I can do this. I can do this.

Rodney went on to talk about how seriously following a spiritual path is never easy, because if you expect to grow, you have to walk toward your problems and confront them. Yeah, that spoke to my whole meditation practice. If I stick with this, it won't be easy. But then again, as I always say, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Before we got to the ceremony itself, Rodney made another comment that resonated with me. Knowing a lot of people had probably come for the evening to profess a new faith, he explicitly told us, "Don't become a Buddhist. In fact, don't become anything. That just makes everything harder." That statement would probably leave a lot of people perplexed if they didn't understand Buddhism's spirit of testing things out to see if they work for you, and its emphasis on not getting so caught up in the teachings that we lose sight of the fact that the teachings are merely tools for self-cultivation, not an end in themselves. As the Zen folks are fond of saying, keep your eyes on the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon. Or as some of the more provocative Zen practitioners like to say, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." Don't get hung up on the Buddha as an object of worship and lose sight of what you're setting out to do. The Buddha's only purpose, in effect, was to impart the teachings that we could then use ourselves.

Then came the time to recite the vows and take refuge. Rodney led us, chanting in Pali, the language of the Buddha, and then in English. We recited the vows three times:

Buddham saranam gacchami (to the Buddha I go for refuge).
Dhammam saranam gacchami (to the Dharma I go for refuge).
Sangham saranam gacchami (to the Sangha I go for refuge).

Dutiyampi ... (for the second time ...).

Tatiyampi ... (for the third time ...).

After that we chanted and recited the precepts, first in Pali, then in two different forms in English -- once in their more negative form, and then once in a more affirming language:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake the precept to refrain from killing.
I vow to cultivate boundless compassion toward all beings.)

Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
I vow to practice generosity.)

Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual harm.
I vow to cultivate responsibility.)

Musav ada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from harmful speech.
I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening.)

Sura meraya majja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs that lead to carelessness.
I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy.)

Finally, to seal the ceremony, we were all given a simple red string, which Rodney called an "intention cord." We were all asked to have a neighbor fasten the cord for us (I put mine on my wrist, as most did), while we helped our neighbor do the same. Sitting in silence, he asked us to think of an intention we wish to focus on for the year ahead, with the vows from the refuge and precepts ceremony still fresh in our minds. He encouraged us to focus on a single word, and to imbue the cord with that word, so that it might serve as a reminder for us as we go about our days.

And that was it. We all went our separate ways. I went home with a renewed sense of purpose, not certain I'll jump back into a Buddhist practice, but determined to do my best to live by the vows I took. In all these years, I never "officially" became a Buddhist, and maybe having done so will help keep me more focused on the teachings. I feel a sense of obligation now to represent the Buddha well with those I interact with.

After all, anyone can recite some words, but they don't mean much if you don't put them into action. And the wonderful thing about the precepts in particular is that they aren't rules you have to follow to appease a deity or dodge hellfire. They're a promise you make to yourself, to cultivate mindfulness and loving-kindness, helping to foster a more harmonious mind and a more peaceful world. They're rooted in love, not fear. And that is a wonderful thing indeed.

This path won't replace my Quaker journey, but it may well supplement it. I may end up becoming a Quddhist by the time everything is said and done. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Value of Silence

One of the enriching things I've discovered about the Quaker tradition is that when people rise to speak in meeting, their words are often imbued with great depth, even if the deeper meaning isn't always immediately apparent. It's often in the quiet that follows, when the rest of us have time to absorb the message, that the words reveal their full import.

That's been the case for me, in any event, going all the way back to my first Quaker meeting. I remember on that day that a few people rose to express opinions that I didn't completely agree with. My gut reaction was to rise and counter with my own view, but being brand new to Quakerism at the time, I wasn't about to do that.

That's not the purpose of vocal ministry, anyway. The point is not to debate. The point is to allow yourself to be led by the spirit, actively listening for the "still, small voice" to guide you and your words.

And if somebody rises and says something we take issue with, sometimes our egos jump right in, wanting to launch a verbal defensive. That we are not to rise immediately after another person has just spoken in meeting, especially if the intention is to debate, cuts off the ego before it gets a chance to make us say something we may regret. In the silence that follows, we can sit with those challenging words, asking ourselves what it is about them that unsettles us. Do the words perhaps reveal an uncomfortable truth about ourselves that we don't want to confront? Is there a lesson to be learned?

That's the value of silence in Quaker meeting. It can be transformative. Little wonder that the Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote, "Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation." Imagine how different the world at large would be if we observed that same kind of behavior -- stopping to listen to what someone has to say and meeting it with thoughtful silence, rather than instantly retaliating, perhaps with a defensive knee-jerk response, which then easily escalates into rancorous argument.

A woman at this past weekend's Quaker meeting expressed some of these same thoughts. The meetinghouse I attend has two services. The earlier 9:30 meeting is usually completely silent, while the 11:00 meeting is generally a bit more talkative. I attend both when I can, because I like both the contemplative mood of the 9:30 service and the spoken ministry of the 11:00 service. This woman said she'd shifted from the 11:00 service to the 9:30 one because she too often found herself disagreeing with what someone else said and felt the urge to debate, or she would want to add on to someone else's thoughts if she thought it was incomplete. It was hard for her to sit in the silence and say nothing. Now she's coming back to the 11:00 service, having found enough peace within herself to allow others' thoughts to come and go without needing to react to them.

To that end, a man rose a while later to say that after another recent meeting, he'd asked a friend whether he should have risen to speak when he did. The friend responded by giving him an acronym to use: WAIT, or Why Am I Talking? I think something as simple as that can help us discern whether the spirit is really moving us to speak on a matter of substance, or whether we're just sharing an anecdote or an opinion that really doesn't rise to the level of vocal ministry.

Not surprisingly, the remainder of the meeting after he spoke was completely silent. I was half-tempted to rise and add my opinion that one should speak only if it improves upon the silence. But since I didn't think saying that would actually improve upon the silence, I stayed in my seat.

A few people I've spoken with at Quaker meeting have commented on the similarities between Quakerism and Buddhism. As one person put it, "Quakerism is Buddhism without the vocabulary." Given the emphasis both place on contemplation, it's not surprising to me that the Quaker approach to ministry would involve an element of non-attachment. Instead of letting our egos clutch on to the words of another, driving us to add our own commentary, we draw what lesson we can from the words, and then we let them go. If they've served their purpose, there's no reason to hold on to them.

An old Buddhist story tells of two monks who met a woman at the river bank, trying to get across but fearful she'd be swept away by the powerful current. The monks were forbidden from making physical contact with women, but deciding that helping her was more important than following a rule, one of the monks picked her up and carried her across the river. He set her down on the other bank, and the monks continued on their way. Much later, as the monks were still walking, the monk who picked up the woman could sense that his companion was upset. When he confronted his companion, the monk said angrily, "You know our vows prohibit us from touching a woman!" The other monk calmly replied, "I put her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?"

And that's how it is with our words. We all hear the words of others, and often we're itching to have an instant reaction to them. But how often do we actually listen?

The beauty of the Quaker meeting is that we do just that. We engage in expectant listening. And that approach would serve us all quite well in the world outside the meetinghouse doors.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Oregon Standoff and Selective Nonviolence

I’m taken aback by how quick many of us are to label people as terrorists and advocate the use of violence against them – especially when those calls come from the parts of the political spectrum that would otherwise consider themselves nonviolent and antiwar.

All over my Facebook feed today I’m seeing people talk about how the situation in Oregon would be different if the ranchers and militiamen had been Muslims, or a black kid with a toy gun. And I don’t disagree at all. There’s an obvious double standard. But the implication behind those statements seems to be that we should be treating the militiamen the same way – by overreacting with state-sanctioned violence, just as if they were Muslims or a black kid with a toy gun.

Does anyone else see the problem here? The militiamen claim they don't want violence (you can choose to believe them or not), and the FBI says it’s trying to come up with a peaceful ending to the incident. Should we not be approving of that? Shouldn’t this be what we actually want? Isn’t that better than seeing one side or the other rushing in with all guns blazing? I’d rather see cops trying to de-escalate situations instead of shooting first and asking questions later. I’d rather see our country adopt a foreign policy that values diplomacy over bombs and stops meddling in other nations’ affairs for its own benefit. Likewise, I’d rather see the two sides in Oregon working toward a peaceful solution, rather than turning it into another Waco or Ruby Ridge.

Moreover, it bears pointing out that while the terrorists we’re fighting overseas wouldn’t think twice about targeting civilians, the group in Oregon is directing its anger at a government that it feels has overreached its bounds. Apples and oranges. Calling them “YallQaeda” and what not is good for a laugh, but it blurs the lines between two groups of people with two completely different sets of motivations. Lest we forget, our nation was founded by people with grievances against their government, and that our own Declaration of Independence defends the right of the people to alter or abolish governments that they believe have become abusive of their rights. Would we call Thomas Jefferson and George Washington terrorists for rebelling against Britain? What about Russell Means and the American Indian Movement when they staged a standoff at Wounded Knee, or when they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in D.C., both actions in protest of the government’s treatment of the Indians? There’s a big difference between resisting your government and the wanton slaughter of innocent people. It’s the difference between Henry David Thoreau and Tim McVeigh.

I also think we risk dehumanizing people and belittling what to them are important concerns, by abstracting them into words that distance them from ourselves as an “other.” This is something that’s plaguing our national discourse in general, not just in this particular incident. We look all too often as people we don’t like as enemies to be annihilated, rather than as human beings with their own concerns and grievances. Terrorists don’t become terrorists just because they enjoy killing people; most of the time they’ve been radicalized by more powerful people who terrorized them first, and seeing no other recourse, they lash out at their perceived enemies in a violent, impotent rage. That’s why simply killing more of them doesn’t get to the root of the problem and therefore won’t change anything. In the case of these ranchers in Oregon, they also feel they have legitimate grievances against their government (again, you can choose to agree or not), and to simply want to unleash the power of the state on them serves no interest, other than the short-term desire to squelch the complaints of an “other” whose views we don’t like.

An article in The Guardian today put it well: “The sad truth is that extremists – both at home and abroad – are often disaffected, frightened, and angry people desperately searching for purpose, validation, and meaning in a world they feel has left them behind. It’s a sickness that can infect almost anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.” We would do well to remember that, and try to address the root causes of why they feel so disaffected, before we urge someone to pull a trigger.

As an anarchist, I feel no compulsion to take the state’s side in this or any other incident. But as a pacifist, I want to see a peaceful solution, to this and all conflicts. I realize that not all share my views, but I would hope that all of us would prefer to see peaceful solutions to our differences, rather than committing violence that only breeds ever more violence.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Upon Us All, a Little Rain Must Fall

In the silence of Quaker meeting last week, I listened to a steady rain patter down on the roof. As I sat there, a verse from the book of Matthew kept rolling through my head and wouldn’t leave: “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” The idea in Quaker meeting is that we can all minister to each other, and all are free to rise and address the meeting as the spirit moves us. There is no clergy. But I’m not a member there, just an attender, so I kept quiet. I’m also a big believer that one shouldn’t speak unless it improves upon the silence. I’ve never risen to give vocal ministry during meeting, and I really doubt that I ever will.

But the thought stuck with me on the drive home, so I let myself ponder what it meant. And I think for me it’s a call to check our own tendency to think we’re always right, and to also try to find a little bit of goodness in the people we find the most challenging and infuriating. Quakers believe that every person has “that of God” within them, a concept I find similar to the idea of Buddha-nature. We all have a kernel of goodness in us, and some of us have it buried more deeply than others. The image it brings to mind for me is the Chinese tai-chi symbol, or what we call yin and yang. Black and white, two opposites, swirl around each other to create a unified whole -- one could not exist without the other. And in the deepest part of each half of the yin and yang, there’s a circle of the opposite color. I explained the meaning of the symbol once to my 4-year-old, and her simplified takeaway of those dots in the opposing colors was “Every good person has a little bit of bad, and every bad person has a little bit of good.” And that’s basically right.

So when I thought about how the rain falls on the just and unjust, it made me think about how we’re all in this together here on Earth, even if we don’t want to be sometimes. It’s easy to decide we’re the good guys and the “other” is the bad guy, but how good are we, really? Do we not often fall short of the standards we set for ourselves? Does our own sense of having to be right prevent us from seeing someone else’s point of view? Are we too quick to demonize those who are different, or whose views offend us? We may find other people unpleasant, but do we ask why they’re like that? Or what it is about them that bothers us so much? Do we ask if there’s anything we can do to help ourselves see compassionately why somebody is perhaps judgmental and angry -- what made them that way? And is there anything we can do to remedy it, while also looking at ourselves to see if anything within us also needs remedying? To bring this back around to scripture, can we see the log in our own eye before noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye?

In other words, who really are the "just" and "unjust"? We probably think we know, but on deeper reflection, do we really? Aren't we all a little bit of both? And isn't that the essential point of the verse?

So I think that verse rolling around in my head was a call for me to act with more tolerance and humility -- calling out injustice in the world when I see it, certainly, but maybe with more of an eye toward what I, or what any of us, can do to fix things. Complaining is easy. Self-righteousness is easy. Actually doing something to change the world for the better, and cultivating harmony and understanding between people, is a lot harder.

But certainly, no one ever said doing the right thing was easy.