Sunday, November 30, 2008

Balancing Identity and Integrity

Identity is a tricky thing. I’ve often struggled with feeling like I have many different identities – why can’t I just have one, all-encompassing me identity? How are identity and integrity related?

Let me begin this post with a list of ‘identities’ with which I associate. I am (in no particular order) a Quaker, a chemist, a daughter, a sister, a student, spiritual, an ice hockey player, a young adult, queer, female. Several of these items could have many different meanings. What kind of Quaker am I? What do I mean by spiritual? What kind of chemist am I, and on what level? Do I mean queer as in strange, or as in something other than heterosexual? However I define each of these terms right now, many of my definitions may change by the time tomorrow rolls around. Labels are tricky like that.

It is so easy for us as humans to pick one label that strikes us and put it on someone, and to see everything that person does and says through that one label. As I said a moment ago, labels are tricky. We easily forget that one label represents (or attempts to represent) something that is often layered and changing, and doesn’t include all the other facets of a whole human being. Placing labels on each other in this way ‘otherizes’ and disconnects us from each other. We must strive to put labels aside and see the whole person. We are all in this world together, however we identify.

Many of us at times hide one or many parts of our identity from others. Sometimes it is out of convenience, sometimes it is out of concern for safety, sometimes it is because we fear the judgment of another. I think it is safe to say that everyone has at one point or another hidden a piece of themselves for one of these reasons, even if for some that piece was very small. Where does our integrity come into play? How can we balance honesty and safety? How can we work for change if we don’t step into uncomfortable, possibly dangerous places to take a stand for who we are? Early Quakers did this all the time. If Friends were persecuted in one area, more Friends flocked there to stand witness, as Friends. This showed a great commitment to integrity, and was also dangerous. Mary Dyer, for example, was hanged on Boston Common for refusing to leave Massachusetts and for refusing to change when she was exiled for being a Quaker. She didn’t hide who she was or what she believed in, nor did she run from judgment or danger to the point of being executed. Would that I had such integrity.

I identify as queer (or gay in a very general sense of the word). This label represents (or attempts to represent) something that I find to be layered and changing. I have often hidden this identity from others out of convenience, and out of fear of judgment. I feel compelled by my sense of integrity to be more open about this large part of myself. I struggle because I feel that by claiming this identity I am in some ways separating myself from some people, and that is the opposite of what I mean to do. I feel as though I must stand up for who I am so that I may more fully connect with others, so that I may work toward bridging that separation so that it is no longer inevitable. This is hard. Sometimes it is easier to hide.

I invite you, whoever you are, to join me. Be uncomfortably honest the next time you find yourself wanting to hide a part of yourself. It could be something small, it could be life-changing. You may be surprised by what happens.

(Props to those of you who already practice this. Keep up the good work.)

much love,

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Allowing the Space

Stop fighting.

This is the message I heard when I was at the YAF gathering in Richmond, IN this past May. It was not a message intended for anyone but myself, and I knew instinctually what it was referring to: I needed to stop fighting within myself.

Over the past few months, prior to this gathering, I had fallen once again into a spiral of doubts about God. What if everything is predetermined and all we are are molecules bumping into each other in some incredibly complicated series of reactions? How could I claim to believe in some higher “being”, when more and more I learn about neuroscience, about how all our experiences are just a bunch of neurons firing in some specific way? Holding these doubts and trying to remember my experiences, I was fighting for God. I wanted to find a reason to believe, some way of explaining everything so that my skeptical, scientific thoughts would calm down and not torment me so much, and over and over again I have gotten lost.

But this, as I slowly come to realize each time I go through it, is not the right question. Stop fighting, God said. I believe it a little more each time.

I often find myself wanting to be more spiritual, particularly on a daily basis. I think about how I should try to implement some system where I have silent time every day, or time for some spiritual reading, and then I judge myself when I fail utterly to do this. I have preconceived ideas about what being more spiritual should look like. This leaves no room for what it does look like.

It is hard to say, “Ok, God, I won’t actively try to pray every day because it’s clearly not working for me” without feeling like I’m giving up or not trying hard enough. But that’s just the problem: I’ve been trying too hard. I’ve not been leaving space for God.

Last summer I was at a gathering in Barnesville OH. I felt incredibly unfocused on the first couple of days. Come Sunday morning I wanted desperately to be present and focused. I tried for a good while to will myself into a grounded place. Finally, with frustration, I did what I thought was giving up. I said to myself, “Fine. I’ll just wait.” I felt like a defiant child. (It’s funny to note now how meeting is often described as a time to wait upon God’s word.) A little while later someone gave a message which struck me deeply, and after sorting through some things within myself, I felt grounded the entire rest of the week. When I put down my own will, my own expectation, I made space for that grounded-ness.

Now, having spent a few months tenderly trying to let go of my expectations of myself, of what spirituality is and means, and what God could be in terms of science, I find a deeper spirituality slowly creeping in. Earlier this week before having a difficult conversation with someone, I found myself praying that my words come from a place of love and not fear, genuinely turning to God for guidance without worrying about what God is, or about what prayer is. I prayed without congratulating myself for finally praying. I was just doing what felt right to me: asking for help in a time of concern, when I felt lost.

I am finally beginning to have space for God in my life, now that I’m not trying so hard to squeeze God in where I think God might fit best. I’m learning to stop fighting, to stop trying to define my experiences with one specific way of thinking. I’m learning to stop trying to will myself into some mold that I think is appropriate, and I'm learning to stop judging myself so harshly about all of it.

As for God, for me it’s not about belief. It’s not about whether or not some higher entity exists in some definable way. God, for me, is about experiencing life, about letting go, and about finding ways to let love move through me. God is my lack of control, my compassion. God is the whole where I am a piece. God is knowing that we are all imperfect, and that it’s ok.

Much love to all,

Sunday, July 27, 2008

After Being Robbed: Violation, Love, and Pain

Friends, what is the proper response to having been robbed? This summer while I was away at FGC Gathering I was robbed twice in the same day, each incident completely independent of the other.

On Tuesday of FGC Gathering I was off campus with the entire high school program on our Out Trip at a nearby state park. While there, I got a text message from one of my roommates back in Boston (where I was subletting for the summer) saying that I should call her back ASAP. She told me over the phone that earlier that day our apartment had been broken into. Mainly electronic things had been stolen – such as laptops and TVs – and she asked if I knew of anything of mine that might have been taken. Thankfully, I had left my computer in the lab at school where I’m working this summer, and own no TV to be stolen. I would have to see when I got back if they had taken my speakers, or anything else I couldn’t think of in the moment. But I was not so concerned with material losses. My personal living space and my sense of security had been violated. It made my skin crawl.

Over the course of the evening after we’d returned from the Out Trip, some of the high school participants noticed that their ipod and/or cash was missing from their rooms. Our dorm and many of the rooms in it had been unlocked while we were gone that afternoon, and we eventually put two and two together: someone came and stole things while we were out. That night I returned to my room to discover my own ipod missing. Strike two.

If I could have chosen to be anywhere on a day like that, it would have been right where I was: part of one of the most loving and supportive communities I have ever been a part of. Also, the thefts at the Gathering prompted a lot of consideration about robbery and how to respond to it. At the HS Program’s Wednesday night Meeting for Business there was some space for participants to process what had happened.

Some declared that whoever took their stuff probably needed it more, and that they give it up gladly – material things aren’t really important anyway. Some said that if this person (or people) needed money, they would have gladly given some if they had just asked. Others expressed their decision to continue leaving their door unlocked as a sign of trust. All of these responses are valid and noble, and many of the messages were quite moving. However, the sense of violation was also acknowledged, and that the decision to lock the door was a valid response, too.

After awhile, during the meeting, the clerks called for the community to settle for a little bit, and to hold those who had lost stuff in the light, as well as the whole community. Someone quickly added that we should also hold whoever stole things in the light as well. Of course. I began to think about how I could connect this particular response with the robbery back in Boston.

One of the main themes of the week for the staff of the HS Program is how to be a loving and safe container for the participants. During staff orientation, as well as during our staff meetings through out the week, we talk in depth about what is the most loving thing to do when someone breaks a guideline. Usually those who get into the most trouble are those who are in particular need of love, and the most loving thing to do is be clear about where the line is, especially when they’ve crossed it. Confrontation is a dialogue, and comes from a place of love.

What about people in a non-Gathering, non-Quaker setting? When they break the law or cross a line, they are in need of love and support just as much as participants in the High School Program at FGC Gathering. How do I extend love to a stranger who has violated my space and security, who has caused me strife, and who I will never meet? How do I acknowledge this person (or people)’s need for support without pitying them, without feeling holier-than-thou pride for extending love in such a situation, and without invalidating my own pain? I still don’t know, but I definitely moved out of that apartment as fast as I could.

When I got back from Gathering I discovered that the only thing I lost was a bag of quarters I’d been saving to do laundry. A couple of the roommates told me that they’re pretty sure it was the neighbors downstairs who were the culprits, based on how they got in and some events that had happened in the past. I don’t know what the police think, and I don’t expect to ever know for sure.

It would have been noble to stay and say that I don’t care about my material possessions, that those in greater need were free to take them if they were that desperate. Perhaps someone else would have been able to stay, willingly sacrificing their sense of safety as a witness to the greater need of others, but that wasn’t something I was ready to do, nor did I feel called to it.

As it turns out, it was a blessing for me to have an opportunity to move out. Way opened.

Before I end this post I’ll ask my question once again: How do I acknowledge someone’s need for love and support when they have hurt me, without pitying them their desperation, without holier-than-thou pride, and without invalidating my own pain?

I still don’t have any answers, but asking the question is a good first step.

Love and Light,

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Faith and Trust

It has been many months since I have posted here. In those months I have been letting go of my need to define my spirituality, to define God. As is evidenced in earlier posts of mine, this past summer I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to determine what I meant by ‘God’ and how that did not contradict science. I also have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to determine the meaning of Jesus and trying to figure out both what it means to be a Christian, and whether or not I am a Christian.

Despite the time and energy I invested in the search for answers, I eventually realized that whether or not I had these answers, I continued to behave in the same ways, to live my faith regardless of the words and definitions I tried to squeeze it into.

Today I am beginning to accept that God is something I will never be able to describe. My faith is not about answers to specific questions or about my ability to fully articulate all of my experiences. My faith is not about the language I use or the labels I claim. It is about living and loving, trusting and growing. My faith is built on experience and love.

I have noticed that sometimes I’ll use words like “the world” or “life” where I have in the past sometimes used “God”. Such as “I’m learning to trust the world more,” or I’ll speak about the challenges “life” has thrown at me. In either case I could just have easily spoken of trusting God more, or of challenges God has thrown at me, and for me, the meaning is the same. What is most important is not who or what I trust, but that I trust.

I trust that no matter what happens in my life, I will be ok – even if the kind of ‘ok’ I am doesn’t look like what I expect it to. I have faith that when I do what I know is right there are impacts beyond what I will ever see or comprehend, even if I don’t see any positive impact myself. I have faith that I am a valid, legitimate person whose feelings are real, and that this is true for every human no matter what. I trust that if my world falls apart I can and will pull through, even if I can’t see how.

Whether or not I know what ‘God’ is or if anything tangible exists that can be called ‘God’, I can still learn to let go, I can still trust, I can still have faith, I can still know the power of grace and love, relying on what I know to be true from my experience: “This I know experimentally.”

much love to all,

Friday, September 28, 2007

Being in Meeting

I used to stress about whether or not Friends were “doing it right” in Meeting for Worship. How can we have a good, legitimate Meeting for Worship if half the Friends gathered think that this is individual meditation, or don’t understand how we’re trying to listen to God, or think that reading a prepared poem is appropriate? I was also frustrated with myself for being so judgmental, but it was still a concern I got stuck on. I realized recently that this is no longer a big issue for me.

A little over a year ago I began attending a new Friends Meeting regularly. At the same time I was in the midst of intense grief for my brother who had died a few months prior, and was dealing a whole slew of struggles that came with that grief. I felt spiritually disconnected, and had no energy to give God any serious, conscious consideration. Yet I still went to Meeting.

Each First Day I got on the 9am bus in order to get to 10:30 worship in the city, no matter how late I was up the night before. Having no spiritual focus, I would sit in meeting and spend the whole time doing something quite other than worship – I would stare into space, focus only on staying awake, or silently cry with my grief. Many First Days those first few months I would leave without talking to anyone. Even those days when I arrived, spaced out, and then left were worth the trek.

I wondered about this for some time; if Meeting for Worship was meaningful without me being able to Worship, there must be something more to it. This year, as I continue to catch that same 9am bus every First Day, this Meeting feels like home to me. Friends there recognize me, are excited to see me, and I find myself engaged in conversation with more and more regular attenders. What I’ve found is that even during those months of no focus and little fellowship, I had slowly been building a relationship with the community, just by being consistently present.

I was speaking to a friend of mine about this last month and she mentioned something else that I find striking. She said that I had been practicing just being. It’s true. If nothing else, when I had no focus, I was just being, nothing else, and it was a good practice.

Now when I sit in Meeting for Worship I often marvel at how we are all sitting together, just being. Being together. I no longer worry if people are focused or are “doing it right”, because that’s not as important as our waiting together, being together, and building community together, one moment at a time. God is with us and among us, no matter what.

Much love to all,

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Epistle from YAFs at Olney, 2007

A brief note:
The following epistle was originally written in Sixth Month, but took until recently to be revised and approved. With that, I present the epistle.

Epistle from YAF at Olney, 2007

Sixth month, 2007.

To Friends everywhere,

Greetings from the young adult Friends who gathered at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, where 80 Friends from across the US and Canada came together for a reunion of the Young Friends of North America (YFNA) and an intergenerational Quaker Camp. Seventeen young adult Friends participated in this week of deep worship, fellowship, and play. Older Friends shared deeply about how their personal and spiritual experiences were influenced by the community of YFNA. As younger Friends, we listened and shared about our experiences living our faith.

Through the whole week, many Friends felt the power of the Spirit in the very land that held us. Young adult Friends joined both with our hosts and our fellow guests in spiritual vulnerability to teach by learning, and to learn by teaching. From the YFNA reunion, we got a great sense of the power and joy that comes from speaking truthfully about our experience of Quakerism with as any Friends as possible and the many dangers and mistakes that are possible while doing so without great care. By engaging with Friends from Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), we gained a greater sense of the depth of our tradition, not only of our ancestors but also of the power of the Christian roots from which we come.

Over the course of the week, the young adult Friends present felt a clear leading to create an organization in which young adult Friends from across North America can build spiritual community together. We spent a lot of time discerning how to move forward with this leading, with the care that is necessary to bring Friends together across theological divides into a diverse community of Quaker youth.

We struggled through in deep discernment, praying for way to open for us to begin this work. We each wrestled with individual discernment of our own leadings and also felt the pressure of our own deep want for this dream to become a reality. We have felt keenly the absence of a true diversity of Friends with us here, and feel much caution at the idea of moving forward without all branches of Quakerism involved.

At the recommendation of the Visioning Committee (which met in Fourth Month, 2007), we are forming a Naming Committee (to be in consultation with the Visioning Committee), which would then form a Steering Committee. The Naming Committee, while not formed in its entirety yet, will meet in the fall of 2007 to name the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee will be active by First Month, 2008. This Steering Committee will include representation from the various branches of the Religious Society of Friends. We are asking young adult Friends from all branches throughout North America to discern deeply and come forward if they are being led to do this work or have names they would like to offer the Naming Committee for discernment. Please email suggestions to Andrew Esser-Haines at

During the discernment, Friends present felt a strong leading to a coordinated intervisitation among yearly meetings, by young adult Friends in the summer of 2008, from which they could spread the word of the new young adult Friends’ organization. This event sprang from many individual Friends’ leadings to engage in intervisitation among Friends. Many of those Friends present in Barnesville expressed that they will begin to engage in the work of intervisitation personally once home. Friends also discerned that the next major North American gathering of this generation of young adult Friends would take place during the summer of 2009. Until the Steering Committee is active, a working group will begin arranging some of the logistics for the coming events. Those who feel led to join the working group are encouraged to contact Nathan Sebens at

Simultaneously, we experienced a process of discovering ourselves and each other. When we needed clarity, we found it in the vocal ministry of older adult Friends in worship. When we felt frustration with the pace of our progress, we recognized in this a need for deeper worship and found courage in taking small steps.

And so, we wait upon God. We trust that those who are led to do this exciting work will come forward, and that God will provide all that we need to engage fully with this work. We give deep thanks for the depth and breadth of the Spirit, which was powerfully felt during our week in Barnesville.


Eric Armstrong, Micah Bales, Lauren Baumann,
Betsy Blake, Nate Blood-Patterson, Andrew Esser-Haines,
Mike Goren, Alex Haines, Becka Haines Rosenberg,
Frederick Martin, Erin McDougall, Elizabeth Piersol Schmidt,
Ruth Raffensperger, Claire Reddy, Nathan Sebens,
Emily Stewart, Gavin White

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Beyond Science

I recently started reading the book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, by Karen Armstrong. I haven’t yet gotten very far in it, but I am struck by ideas she presents just in the introduction.

“To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.” (p. xvi)

Mythos or myth is about true meaning found in stories – particularly religious stories – and is not concerned with practical, rational, scientific facts. Logos, then, is concerned with all that is practical, rational, and scientific. Karen talks about how before the Modern Age, people did not mix these up, that to even ask whether a story (reserved to the realm of mythos) actually happened was to try to apply scientific thought (logos) to that which was beyond science, to that which has meaning regardless of science.

“By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious. … Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos.” (p. xvii and xviii)

This sounds all too familiar to me. In fact, this is almost exactly what I have been struggling with, especially as a scientist. Take, for example, my struggle with the story of Jesus and the idea of Christ. I have gotten lost in literal interpretations that contradict (or potentially contradict) my experience of science. The scientist in me vehemently rejects such contradictions and I have found myself searching for analogical meaning, trying to translate the literal interpretations into something that has meaning for me. Instead of getting lost in literal interpretations, I need to go back to the original story of the life and teachings of Jesus, and find the meaning there – and I do indeed find great meaning there. I need not worry about whether it actually happened.

This idea is not new to me, but to find it so well articulated and to find the beginning of a historical explanation for how we got here today to this almost overly rational and scientific way of approaching the world has brought new clarity for me. I am feeling released from my need to rationalize these stories. I feel like I can read and learn from the Bible, I can begin to speak of Christ, and I can understand better the idea of Jesus working in people’s lives (even in my own life!) without the scientist in me raising alarm and challenging me to examine my integrity. It is neither in line with nor contradictory to science, because it is beyond science.


Much love to all,