Refusing to swear

REHOBOTH MILLS: I have used the occasions to uphold our testimony of using the affirmation rather than an oath, when such have come up on legal documents this past year. It always strengthens my spirit when I do so. And yet we must also recognize that the affirmation is becoming in practice another way of saying, in effect, that we just might have a double standard of truth. As such, it becomes an easy escape when we ought perhaps to be refusing to answer at all. I do want to share with Friends the one occasion when I was tendered the oath in a courtroom; this was in the divorce, something that was completely against everything I believed in and yet something that could not be turned back, something that had support in Matthew (and I have been so grateful that Dean opened my eyes to that passage, though he probably does not remember doing so); when I said, “I cannot swear but I will take the affirmation,” the judge gave me an annoyed look, Patt realized that great growth had been occurring in my religious life, and I tasted once again that victory the Lord holds out to His people. Sometimes this happens in the most unlikely places! With gambling, it is a great strength to be able to smile and simply say, “It’s against my religion.” But is that a cop-out? In an age when faith is too often separated from daily life, others are gently reminded in that witness of our need to be consistent to our beliefs. Speculation based on the principles of chance are growing all around us; sweepstakes seem to arrive in the mail daily. I don’t open those envelopes, but there’s still the temptation – and for the person to be notified as a winner, to write in the blank: Olney Friends School or some other worthy cause. But I cannot claim to be completely free of participation in games of chance: among our newspaper features are “The Latest Line” and a new one, “Will Wynn Lotto,” both of which offer gambling information for those betting on sports or on certain state lotteries. Even when I’m not personally selling them (my boss is traveling around, pushing the Lotto feature), the revenue is still a major component of my salary. What guidance do Friends offer? And what about perks – all those bonus points for travel and accommodations? Do these fall in the category of temptations to grow rich at the expense of others?

JANE’S FALLS: I am reminded of how much modern life tries to instill a double-standard of living, not just of truthfulness. Our public life – “a dog-eat-dog world,” as we’re reminded – demands that we override values (that is, ethics) with “objective measures” (profit/loss, price, operating margin, or whatever). Our public life is then further separated from our private spheres, which may go in any number of directions, as the Gary Hart affair demonstrated. As Friends, however, we know that there is no real separation of the two, that we must maintain one testimony throughout.

When I was on the road as a salesman, I was struck repeatedly by the way many obviously powerful men headed straight for the bar after work and hit the hard liquor – it was apparent on their faces that they had done something that day that they wanted to forget, and that the liquor was to deaden the pain. We can see examples of these “objective measures” and lack of values in the decision-making of conglomerates when we observe the closed factories of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

But if we, as Christians, are to live in Truth, we must strive to make our life’s expression consistent. We are confronted with the use of affirmation rather than giving oath far less often than we are with the more prevalent use of expressions in our workplace that are, often without any apparent awareness of the fact, invocations that debase what is holy and imprecations that are, at the least, unloving. I know I need to be more vigilant in my own behavior in that regard.

With the rise of “sweepstakes” mailings, I appreciate the strength our queries and advices provide every time I overcome temptation and instead throw those vile seductions away, unopened. Even so-called Christian radio stations fall prey to the audience-building practice of free giveaways of concert tickets and records.

While we must be careful to avoid speculation (the recent stock-market crash serves as a good reminder that the pigs always get burned), we must remember the parable of the talents in obtaining a full return on that which is entrusted to our stewardship.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

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Practicing simplicity

SYCAMORE GROVE: Simplicity can be rather complicated. It’s not an aesthetic, nor a drab or dreary lifestyle, nor even living without a refrigerator (which I once attempted). Rather, I’m finding more and more it’s a matter of keeping Christ in the center of my life. When I see this simplicity as a matter of keeping balance on the straight and narrow way – of walking with Jesus toward a destination he directs – rather than as a static state that outwardly resembles either a Zen temple or an Old Order suit, I more gladly suffer the disorder that life provides. Simplicity should allow time and space for surprises and for service. If in my manner of living, my speech, and my apparel I somehow lose our expression of gladness and thankfulness, I would guess that I’ve also lost my simplicity.

Curiously, moving to a new and slightly smaller apartment has caused me to reorganize, reevaluate, and simplify my manner of living. In doing so, I’m finding a renewed vitality and strength. Keeping priorities in focus is another form of simplicity – and an empowering one.

Sincerity in speech means being willing to say “no” distinctly and to take unpopular stands. It involves a readiness to voice irritations and hurts, rather than masking them. I’m finding that in the workplace, some things have to be voiced more directly and forcefully than they would in Quaker circles, where we are likely to be attuned to more subtle promptings.

Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. Luke 10: 38-39

AGAMENTICUS LANDING: Living with simplicity involves our time as well as our possessions. Too often, though, we get caught up in a web and then dismiss it as “the way things are.”

Part of this is a cultural artifact of our era. First-Day is no longer set aside for rest and re-centering, but has become the major shopping day of the week; families, especially, find it fills up with other demands on our time. In the past, there were fewer places to go on “the Sabbath,” no television, and no “24/7” operations. We Friends have allowed ourselves to become so invaded that we have become more and more in the world, rather than of the world.

We need to live more in the “now” – in unity with the Holy Spirit. With this focus, moderation and integrity do not necessarily mean sharply curtailing the number of activities we undertake, but rather to harmonize the ways they fit into God’s purpose for our lives. We can ask ourselves: What do I need to be me? Which ones does God want me to do? Are these places I want or need to put my energy? Should I keep lists of things to do, or should I rely on what is before me? Does this activity bring me closer to a relationship with God? To my sense of purpose? To clarity? (Or is it something I do “to fill time”?)

Times of quiet, such as Meeting for Worship, allow us to turn and retune ourselves; they give us a timeout from taking on too much. When things to do pile up, the piles soon clog the flow of our lives. Focusing on what needs to be done, on authentic priorities, keeps peace of mind.

Paradoxically, abundance often is found by thinking smaller, in terms of activities and possessions; focus allows us to appreciate the abundance of Spirit. Discipline that produces an awareness of this deeper abundance, so that rather than being depleted by three different activities, we can see them coming together – will bring us into integrity. Here is a gift, grace in being filled and fulfilled without being hurried. A great sense of joy can arise in something small and simple.

This practice requires a constant balancing, looking for treasures where others would see nothing of value. Society urges us to think big, to consume as much as we can; our children want to take on activities “because everyone is doing it.” We need to get the right things to the right place. It’s so very easy to get overwhelmed.

As we’ve speeded up our lives in the technological age – and it’s relentless – we need to recognize the value of monastic life, with its interruptions throughout the day for times of prayer. Monks also learn to see that in putting the other person first, one serves God.

How do we reconcile such selflessness – especially when we have children in our care – with our own needs? It is important to take a break or to recognize I cannot do it all. Mothers, foremost, too often put their own needs aside. The danger arises when there’s a feeling of guilt – “I should be” – rather than joy. “People don’t like to be ‘should’ upon,” as one Friend advises. When resentments arise, burnout is so easy.

Integrity allows ways “to do by not doing.” Right action is rooted in letting go of the result. The action occurs in the “now,” rather than the future.

What we do can bring us into God’s place, as individuals and as a new people. Then things can get in places they need to be, for God’s interaction. At different times and stages in our lives, we may have more or less on our plate. As we develop and grow spiritually, our understanding changes, moderating our goals. Simplicity becomes a “purity of heart is to will one thing,” and focus on that objective. This can lead to de-cluttering and de-stressing our lives. It can also help us in letting go of the past.

As our individual lives come together, do they form a group integrity? Can the world recognize us as Quaker? It really is difficult to tell people in the outside world what we are about. Perhaps we can be content to live within a paradox. We cannot make our vision so small we can explain it easily. There are essential issues we’re working on with others, and that is what we’re about.

We confess, as we look about, “This household does not look simple.” We get way too big: the amount of our activities, the size of our houses, the size of our cars. Reduce the available size, and the focus will follow.

Large in heart, small in possessions or busyness. Am I capable?

WILLOW BROOK: I am reminded, DO LESS BETTER.

For the past several years, I have been de-collecting – releasing books from my shelves, self-publishing volumes from my manuscripts, wearing out clothing. That part has been liberating, though far from finished.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Living in the world (testimony of plainness and/or simplicity)

JANE’S FALLS: Outwardly, my lifestyle would appear to many people as simple – even austere or severe – and my modesty of apparel would tend toward the drab or even seedy. There is a big difference between self-negation, which would deny the goodness of God’s creation, and partaking of the Bread of Life.

This insight was emphasized when, after returning from a trip that included a visit in an Old Order Mennonite home, I realized that even with my computer and stereo, my household was plainer than theirs, comparatively lacking in colorful and comforting touches such as living plants, afghans, and samplers on the walls.

Since then, I’ve been becoming aware of the dimensions of a tension within me; one side desires the community symbolized by Old Order plainness, and another is nurtured in expressive flair. I’m recognizing that this second side has been deeply repressed in recent years, as much by a feeling of poverty as by any religious concern. (As a profession, journalists are being paid even less than teachers these days; as a result, it becomes very easy for me to embrace a “simplicity” that rejects any form of monetary expenditure.)

Coming to grips with some very basic practices, such as ordering well-made and styled clothing that is both simple and expressive, has been an unexpectedly liberating exercise, one that helps me overcome feelings of victimization and deprivation in America’s highly materialistic society. When these things become personal idols, then we need to worry.

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Plainness and simplicity

REHOBOTH MILLS: Until we can be grateful for whatever we have been given – and be freed from that deep craving for the endless desires of the numberless things of this world – there can be no true peace. No true peace in the world or in our hearts. This is not a support of injustice, for we are required to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Lord. Simplicity can be such a complex issue! The old Quaker Disciplines called for “plainness” instead, and we have seen how that could degenerate into a series of outward signs without an accompanying inward transformation – that great danger of Phariseeism; and yet I treasure the close friendship of a young Plain Friend and his wife, both of whom find in the practice a hedge against the temptations of this world and discover through their clothing and speech many opportunities to witness for the Lord, through the inquiries of others. And they find that because of their practice, they cannot even consider doing things and going places that I could “incognito.” Simplicity includes the use of our time and commitments as well as our material possessions. It involves keeping Christ first in our lives, the focus of our activity. And it involves clinging to His righteousness. The demands of making a living have too often hindered my spiritual practice; I continually accept demanding jobs that require long hours and much commitment. John Woolman’s pulling back from his trade is becoming an inspiration to me, and I feel a similar transformation coming up in my own life. And yet I will not make any change until I am convinced that the Lord is opening the way and leading me. Last week I attended a sales training session in Chicago; one of the central points I came away with was this: that the most important part of selling is in earning the client’s trust in you. Without that trust, the other steps in selling are in vain: convincing him that you can help him, that your product or service will fill his specific need, that this is the time to buy, that the two of you are ready to close the sale. So truthfulness and carefulness in fulfilling promises are worth more than gold. And being fair and just in these dealings is essential in keeping that trust.

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Upholding peace and social justice

SYCAMORE GROVE: The buildup of armaments and troops along the Iraqi border reminds us of the hidden costs of an “American way of life” addicted to relatively cheap imported petroleum. The chemical weapons and nuclear potential within Iraq also remind us how readily some individuals and corporations allow their own greed to endanger the world’s welfare.

The military pervades our national society so thoroughly that our participation is often unwitting: a telephone excise tax, for instance, may be more invisible than the bulk of our federal income taxes, but no less invidious. Our national balance-of-trade deficit may be blamed on Japanese imports, while ignoring the cost of maintaining U.S. troops overseas. And no one dares criticize the governmental folly or self-indulgence.

I watch the children outside my window as they reflect the violent values they learn from commercial television – to say nothing of the continual message of materialism as the basis of our happiness and human fulfillment, or the expectation of being entertained endlessly because of their underlying boredom.

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A life of peace (peace testimony)

SYCAMORE GROVE: I strive to live in that peace which is given by Christ Jesus (John 14:27), and am reminded that often this will not be understood by the world nor welcomed by it (Matthew 10:13 and Luke 12:51). I am also reminded that we are called to be a community exemplifying this unity in love (Mark 9:50 and Ephesians 4:3-4), and am often grieved at how scattered we are in the body.

As a journalist, there are little things I do to cultivate mutual understanding and good will. Sometimes it’s in the selection of one story over another. Other times, it may involve paring a news report in a way that will allow another voice to be presented, or in toning down the belligerence of a columnist. But it is so little within a very militaristic and violent society at large.

It is important that we be both loving and firm when we encounter those of pro-military persuasions. I am finding that as “the Quaker in the midst,” I have a special witness to bear: sometimes the expectation arises in the form of a taunt (“Oh, you couldn’t apply for a passport, you’re a Quaker”) (that because of the oath that was once required), and other times to remind other people that Christ calls His people to something other than carnal arms (I recall the expression on a Southern Baptist missionary’s face after he exploded with “I believe in Christ but I also believe in freedom!” – as he realized that he was placing another god before our Lord). In many instances, people are hearing for the first time Scriptural commands and precepts: “Put your sword away!” (John 18:11).

WILLOW BROOK: I stand accused of harboring resentments, perceived slights, a sense of getting less than my share in a given situation.

This does nothing to advance a peaceable kingdom.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Warfare

REHOBOTH MILLS: As long as there is any darkness in our hearts – anger, greed, lust, hatred, or whatever – the causes of war and other violence fester. We need to continually invite His light to fill us, that we might be pure and loving. We must become wholly enlisted in the Lamb’s War – the war against the Adversary – to bring true peace to the world and help establish God’s Kingdom here on earth. We are reminded (Ephesians 6:10-18) to put on the full armor of God in this struggle “not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We must remember to maintain a Christian love for those serving in military positions, for they, too, are made in God’s image, and many of them serve in the belief that they are working for good.

I am troubled by the extent to which our tax money – to say nothing of our entire economy – is subverted to the ever growing voracious appetite of the military-industrial complex, which only increases the insecurity of the world and does nothing to build up the things that can greatly relieve the difficulties of this planet – the much-needed education, agricultural relief and reform, redistribution of wealth, improved health, birth control, and so on.

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Extending Christian oversight

SYCAMORE GROVE: My initial response to the three parts of this query: no, no, and no. As this causes deeper examination, though, I observe a personal uneasiness arising from a sensitivity to those “less fortunate,” a reaction that would prefer to look the away from distress. My first reading of the query – and my response at that moment – is financial. Although not lacking for daily bread, at times in the past several years I’ve been reminded how I am the “less fortunate” one; at other times I’ve been shown just how precarious my own situation is, financially and other ways. Thus, I feel a great inadequateness in responding to the material needs of others, even within the Meeting.

In reading the query again, another facet appears – one involving emotional and spiritual dimensions. A concern for offering material comfort is my attempt to compensate for an inability in extending a more essential kind of assistance. Too often I’ve known “duty” and “obligation” instead of genuine love or even acceptance.

Such feelings of fear and inadequacy are difficult to face, much less confess.

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good; but me ye have not always. – Mark 14: 7

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Sharing others’ burdens

JANE’S FALLS: This query seems to have two elements: material goods and emotional conditions. There is so much need all around – the homeless, unemployed, imprisoned, impoverished, illiterate, and so on – that I quickly feel overwhelmed, especially living apart from family and spiritual community within my neighborhood; I feel how little I can do in the face of this, especially when the real needs may be much deeper than those that can be seen. From this sense of great inadequacy, there too often arises a hardening within me, a wall between those in need and myself.

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Community

REHOBOTH MILLS: Being sensitive to needs of others around me who may be in less fortunate circumstances is a weakness on my part. It is too easy to let a hardness come over my heart and a blindness over my eyes, especially in a big city like Rehoboth, where there is so much poverty and hardship it can break your heart. Yes, and much of it along racial lines. And much abuse of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and violence, too. Charity is not the same as the more tender, personal sharing that arises in communion and obedience. When we are in close fellowship – in Christian community one with another – we may more closely share the burdens of others. But I find myself pretty much isolated here, and community is thin; in this apartment complex, the neighbors keep to themselves. I see that I am answering this along the lines of material circumstances. Yet sensitivity to the spiritual needs may be even greater. Many who are materially comfortable are troubled in spirit and require our prayerful support and our words of spiritual encouragement. I have deep gratitude to Ohio Friends who anonymously prayed for me through the dark hours of my separation and divorce. Seeing another Friend whose actions in life give grounds for concern but knowing my counsel would be most unwelcome has been a great difficulty. Prayer has been the only opportunity I have seen there. The pain can be very great, but we know that a suffering love is one aspect of Christ’s concern for each of us. I am finding the many hours of driving I do in my current job often can be a good time for holding others up in prayer.

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