Saturday, July 29, 2017

On Rational, Consensual Suicide

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

-Albert Camus, opening line of The Myth of Sisyphus

Not one of us chose to become alive. From our conception, our existence has been involuntary, subject first to the whims of nature, and then to the determination of our parents. Our violent exit from the warm into the cold was the first of many instances where stress, pain, and simple existence were handed to us without our consent.

Consent, once one is old enough to be capable of giving it, is a shared social value. Depending on one's political compass, consent is sacred. For some, the consent of bodily touch is holy, not to be infringed. For others, consent over the seizing of money and property is holy, not to be infringed. For most, continuing to live, even against one's will, does not seem to be a matter of consent. Is this well reasoned?

Following birth, where we become breathing beings without consent, we grow and are given names we do not choose. We are handed ideologies we do not choose, and attend schools we do not choose. We enter puberty, and develop social and sexual preferences we do not choose, fall in love with people we did not choose to develop feelings for, and sometimes enter into marriages, the form of which was decreed normal long before we had a voice. The entire outline of our lives, it seems, is forced upon us without our consent.

And it's worse than that. The structure of our towns, churches, relationships, families, and beliefs systems were formed long before we had brain matter. They're so ingrained in us, we aren't aware none of it has to be the way it is. We didn't start with options, so we don't develop the awareness that options exist.

And all of it, from birth to grave, hurts. Every day we live is full of pain, and stress, and worry, and disagreement. On occasion, it is also full of love, and relief, and catharsis, and pleasure. The array of human experience is vast and varied, but there are only two certainties throughout: you didn't choose to enter into this life, and this life will end.

The end of life, inevitable and final as it is, is the last footprint a person gets to leave on this rock we inhabit. And perhaps the most cruel social convention that is thrust upon us without our consent is that the end of our lives must be left up to nature and circumstance. The thought that an individual might decide that the pain of this life is not worth it anymore – few ideas provoke such unanimous disapproval.

Social reaction to suicide is predictable, even if it's without intellectual scrutiny. A selfish act, they say. They had so much more life to live, they say. They should have lived for others. What a shame.

The pain of others is often used to shame people away from suicide.  The older we get, the more responsibilities we take on, the more people we know, and usually, the more people we love.  The love we have for these people, and the love they have for us, is supposed to eliminate our agency; To take away our consent over life and death.  But to give others this power assumes we could have predicted the future.  We are assumed to have known, when we married, or had children, or took a job, that the future would remain as painless as it was in those moments.  None of us have that power, and even if we did, why do others have more claim on our lives than we do? 

I submit that suicide is neither selfish, nor anyone's action to judge. If a person must live without their own consent, of what value is it? Every day, every single person we interact with is someone who decided, on that day, not to die on purpose. And once a person realizes their life is their own to continue or not, how brave a statement it is to trek on, choosing to bear the pain life brings when any number of simple actions could put a stop to it.

Today, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you are experiencing some kind of pain that exists because someone else brought you into this world. You know that you will die, but it won't be today. Others will not make that choice. Their pains, also existing because they were born without permission, were not worth it anymore. For those people, the magnitude of their own power finally dawned on them. They don't have to feel this way anymore, and choose not to. I propose that this is not only rational, it is their right as involuntary people. Death will come for us all. If we are allowed to choose anything in this life, it ought to be whether life is worth living. May we do our best, each day, to live on purpose, until the day we can no longer give this life our consent.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Hope has long been a friend of mine. As a depressed teenager, the thing that most kept my spirits up was the anticipation of the next youth group event, or date with a girlfriend. Whatever the reasons for my current sadness, the future was a question mark, and sometimes question marks are amazing.

As a young adult, my hope was smaller in scope. During long days at work, my hope was in an evening of video games, or the dinner I planned to make later. My life was a series of small hopes followed by small victories, and nearly all the days were good days.

My early thirties expanded my hopes to the distant world, and the supernatural. Maybe God could be found again. Maybe the latest social justice cause had a light at the end of the tunnel. Each day had the possibility of far-reaching improvement, and I looked forward to participating in it. When social justice asked me to shun people who thought differently than me, my hope in people led me to put my efforts elsewhere. For a long time, I thought my hope was well placed.

These days I struggle to find hope most of the time. Because humans are as weak as we are, we betray our better intentions. We'll abandon real people in our physical lives in favor of idolized people thousands of miles away. We'll repeat the mistakes of our ideological opponents, changing the labels, but keeping the logical errors. We'll allow ourselves to be emotionally affected by the sorrows of people we can't help, and will never meet, but we'll never learn that our neighbor has a lost a partner, or that our postal carrier got a promotion. It's as if our technological evolution has surpassed our mind's ability to cope with everything our eyes can see, and we're paying the price for it. I don't know how to process daily doses of disappointment. In myself. In others.

I want my hope back. I want to believe that events and people and organizations matter. I want to believe that light is real, and that I'm capable of finding it. It seems absurd to be hoping for hope. But maybe recognizing the circular motion of it all is the first step in making it real.  

Friday, December 9, 2016


The star takes center stage
the planet falls in orbit
circling the center of gravity
With this balance of power
there can be no trading places.

At the time of the great explosion
when atoms and gases and minerals rebelled
against their original form
who decided the pecking order?
Did planet say to star,
"i will follow you"?
Did star say to planet,
"you will do my bidding"?

The nature of the universe demands equality
Pushing and pulling, in search of equilibrium.
Between planet and star, no such parity
Action precedes equal reaction
But as the permanent rotation begins
The planet says goodbye to its freedom
And hello to its permanent, miserable assignment

One wonders, if foreknowledge abounded
would planet have orbited star
would star have drawn in planet
and when "I do" was spoken
did you want to be a
planet or a star?

Monday, November 7, 2016



the slow, simmering ache within
the round hole in a sea of triangles
like watching santa skip my chimney
I am permanently homeless
and constantly homesick

what is this?
do we all yearn for the unreachable peace?

I look for ways to make it useful
if I must hurt, can I soothe another?
if I must cry, will another feel needed if they see it?
is this how we heal?
by bearing it all to each other
until we close our wounds together?


the mind and the heart are at war
always at war
mind knows only I can own the emotions
emotions are furious, stabbed by naivety and deception

heart says forgive, intentions matter,
that the foolish don't know any better
mind says cut and run
that if who you are is destructive to who I am
both mind and heart are best focused elsewhere.

History says I will side with mind every time.

today is no different.
Mind will soothe the heart
Information will win out over zealous feeling
And perhaps tomorrow won't feel so homesick.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


All is quiet on 5th street tonight
too much, too soon, a bittersweet disaster
He lost his composure
she lost a friend
and I'm tired of talking third person.

I summoned emotion from the grave I left it in
but it came at a greater cost than it was worth
To feel an ocean of love
with nothing but deserts to spread it over
while those who are thirsty scarcely catch my eye
I threw a treasure down a well
And I want it back.

The thing about mirrors is
if you don't see a reflection
it's not really a mirror.
Sometimes withholding information is
an act of aggression.
And of all the things I deserve,
I didn't deserve this.

“You deserve better,” my center tells me.
And I do.
From that grave, my love abounds in new and different ways
Friends have talents I've never noticed before
Kids have songs to sing I hadn't heard
It's easier to speak love to those who deserve it
though I'm new at doing so

I turned older this week
and among those who remembered,
a favorite friend inscribed
“we are more than our ideas” on beachwood,
quoting me to myself,
words to live by all the more.

And I will be more than my ideas.
I will love in new and more vulnerable ways
I will share with those who will share in return
I will hope for brighter and more peaceful days.
Because I am more than my ideas
And it's time for my life to live up to my ideal way of being.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

First Word 10/9/2016

delivered to West Hills Friends on 10/9/2016

When I began attending West Hills four years ago, I was taught two things about open worship. First, to speak in open worship, a person should feel compelled to speak by a higher power. Second, the message should not only be something a person needs to say, but should also be words that are likely to be meaningful or useful to others who are present. Because I believe in rules and form, I've been faithfully silent in open worship. I'm hoping this will be the last time I feel like I have to share with you from up here.

What I want to talk about are feelings. Namely, that I don't like them. When I was in high school, I felt things strongly almost all the time. I wrote sappy poetry, made mix tapes, all variety of emotive things. Mid-college my personality changed quite a bit, and most of my life experience since then has been in my head, presenting as an interest in facts and things that can be quantified. Feelings didn't show up much anymore, and as a result, I lost my ability to deal with them on the rare occasions they do show up.

Earlier this year I finally listened to my intuitions, and left social media. Since that time, the world, and my place within it feel much smaller. I can't be invited to anything my group message, and I can't communicate to hundreds of people at once. All incoming and outgoing communications are direct and personal, and as a result, all my interactions have become more meaningful.

With the world being smaller and quieter, I've started to feel things a lot more often. I feel regular emotions like gratitude and embarrassment stronger than I have in awhile, but I'm also feeling bigger things like heartbreak and anxiety. These feelings present like a Kraken springing out of water, and I'm powerless over them.

One of the feelings that's new to me is what some might call the presence of God. In my youth, God was a series of answers and equations. God was a fact, a wrapped package of truth to be accepted and shared. What I feel isn't those things. It's not concrete enough for me to be sure what it is. But it's close enough to what I would want God to feel like that I've become willing to use the word.

Last week Peg spoke to us about hope, asking what our hopes are. This question produced a bit of a crisis for me, because I have an answer, and it scares me. I used to believe in a God who knew everything, could do anything, and who knew everything about me. And believing in those traits, I talked to God all the time. I haven't believed in, or talked to, that God in a long time. But as I've begun to feel a presence I can't explain, an experience that some might call God, I've realized that even if I become sure that God is what I'm feeling, I have no idea what to say to it. My hope is that it is God, and that someday I find the words to re-introduce myself.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Who says to the wind,
"I am weak, blow me over?"
Who says to the hangman,
"Take this rope, I tied it strong and true?"
Who says to the flames,
"Come closer, I'm barely warm?"
Who says to peace,
"I don't need you, you may go?"
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
is just to love, and to be loved in return."
In the mountains rests a door                                 
Retinal scans and 14 codes                                       
Buried 'neath miles of soil                                                                                          
The urns of things most true
Laid softly side by side
Known only to one,
Meant to always be so.
Toohey: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here.
Why don't you tell me what you think of me?"

Roark: "But I don't think of you."
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
As treasures go in one by one,                                  
Roark's words ring within,                                        
a paragon of serenity                                                
Repeat it, repeat it, it might come true.                     
All of them, any of them                                                            
Like vapor through my frame                                     
To be invincible.
ahbe fights the whole way
the siren of ache and honesty
but surely he must be wrong
for what is love at the cost of peace
or being loved at the cost of...

if I lose my eyes
if I lose my codes
may they rot in the surrounding earth
may the way of peace and horizontal lines
win out over knots and bursts of abandon
this urn is meant to be mine
every fingerprint reminds me
to cling harder
to think harder
to say to the wind
I am not weak, you will not blow me over
and to the flames
the cold is where I belong

Monday, September 26, 2016


Set 'em down on these wood gallows
Fumble the fears of the end
smiling all the way
I'll smile right back and we'll
Say it's alright that our pains are so cold and so intimate

If two is good, then three is better
Life only moves one sip at a time
if we say it does
Futures scroll across lines
of a tree that once gave shade to lovers
who knew better
The clock on the wall says
this time is sacred, and for once
we treat it like it is

Wheats of variety, friend to the nervous
tease out the truth from my padlocked tongue
like digging my grave
i lay the cards down in a row
and hope they paint a coherent picture
We leave them there, sprawled in order
Unsolved but exposed, a nail plucked from
feet tired of running

So next week I'll set 'em down on those wood gallows
Fumbling my fears of the end
smiling all the way
You'll smile right back and we'll
Say it's alright that our pains are so cold and so intimate

Thursday, September 15, 2016

If You Build It

She doesn't have to be real
He doesn't have to be listening
It doesn't have to have Platonic form
If you call, speak, listen or scream
You can build your own God.

A neurological model
Formed of longing and optimism
Crafted by the prayers of the heartsick,
crying out to know that which cannot be greater
Form it in your mind
Focus on its love
Talk as if not alone
And there you will find your lost friend


He tells me these things in sound and print
Celebrating the return of his lost love
while I wait inside with the porch light on.
I've forgotten the voice I once knew so well.

It seems so easy
Allowing the mind to do what it does
Forming avatars of hope and surrender
Yet..I can't.


I saw my essence from above today
and grieve what I found
The whole being is on permanent defense
Losses of the past have formed speared walls of preservation
The body insisting, "you will not hurt him!"
while the mind wants to give up and accept companionship
Even if it isn't real.
It's not the fear that Love will show up
It's the fear that it won't

Losing my Jesus
that death by a thousand cuts -
this body won't let it happen again.
So while the mind longs to quit fighting,
to pray to whatever will absorb those prayers
and offer that sweet illusion of safety
The body is winning the fight.
God, whatever that might be
is losing to these walls of self-preservation.

inspired by Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Confession and Self-Improvement

The fog has lifted, the air is still, and on the inside, there is peace.

For most of the last year plus, I've been yearning to reach the place I am now. From this more peaceful place, I can see the road traveled more clearly, and reflect on what's been learned.

The end of 2014 brought a lot of pain.  Some of it, regrettably, I have written about here.  This regret is something I think is important for me to talk about now.  It has been my good fortune that most of life has been free of long-term, deeply emotional pain.  There have been patches, for sure.  My experience of the puberty years were confusing and mostly filled with depression and self-loathing.  The months following our miscarriage were acutely painful.  But mostly, my life has gone pretty well.

Because my life has gone so well, I hadn't learned how to go about my day to day life while in pain.  My enneagram personality type is type 5, which includes a tendency to run and hide in the face of conflict, and more importantly, the ability to repress emotional to the point that when I can recognize that I'm feeling an emotion, it can be a devastating experience.  Emotions simply aren't a regular part of my internal monologue.

So at the end of 2014, with all its pain, I panicked.  I behaved in ways that are not consistent with the person I want to be; The person I spend a lot of energy trying to show to others. In my pain, I wrote publicly about things that did not concern the public. I shared an email with the public that was not written for public consumption, and I painted a church community with broad strokes over actions that very few of them were involved in.

In my head, I think I justified what I was doing by comparing myself to what people do all the time: emote publicly over perceived injustice.  Liberal culture rewards people for calling out bad behavior, and in my head, I had been wronged, and being wronged warrants public shaming.  Perhaps sometimes it does.  In my case, it did not.

Looking back on it now, I can name a few ways I've harmed myself in the name of catharsis.  Firstly, by showing a willingness to speak publicly about things that did not concern the public, I showed myself to be a person who cannot be trusted to be disagreed with.  If I am willing to go public with my disagreement with you, you will learn to avoid any topics in which we might disagree.  If I show that I am a person who might put your email to me on my blog, you will learn not to send me emails.  Both of these things are violations of trust, and I want to be a person that can be trusted.

And it wasn't only me who was harmed.  Things didn't go the way I'd planned within my church community, that's for certain.  But entertaining the notion of having an atheist be a member is going out on a limb for any church, even a liberal one.  And by acting outside my own values as a civil person, I lessened the incentive for the church to go out on limbs.  If my behavior is the reward for such a risk, it would be reasonable to circle the wagons and give less leeway to people whose ideas fall well outside the accepted norms.  That's not to say that the community will react in that way, but if they did, it would be understandable.

I am taking my failures over the past year as a challenge.  It is a challenge for me to practice civility in times of pain.  It is a challenge to live up to my values even when it's easier to abandon them for a quick atta-boy or a cheap signal to my in-group.

I am the only person who will be there for all of my life events.  If free will exists, the person over whom I can exert the most control is myself.  Therefore, if I want to be the happiest I can, with enough emotional reserve left over to focus on others, I have to view myself as an ongoing project.

Friday, February 26, 2016

the most real illusion

...light filtered through the moving glass, and it all came back.

1980-1992 a three-legged race, in all i did, you were there.
you turned when i turned,
smiled when i smiled,
cried when i cried.
you were all i was given,
and all that i needed


..we turned the corner,
removing the leg strap,
and walked for awhile.
i told everyone about you;
more than they wanted to hear
but i loved you so much
i couldn't keep you to myself

...running now, we set off for bigger things
leaving home, then finding love after love
a seamless sequence of data and advertising
certainty about certainty
you didn't warn me of the road ahead

...i didn't notice when you left
turned my head one day
realized you'd been gone a long time
the mind can numb the heart
and it did.
oh, how it did.

...then i felt what i knew.
you weren't there; hadn't been there
all along.
i searched trees and rocks,
finding only me, my family,
my friends.
they are everything, but they will not live
a funeral without end
your death in me

and so i stopped running
went home and shut the door
leaving the porch light on
just in case you simply got lost

...when i cried for no reason
when i heard that old song
when the sky seemed to have a fourth dimension
when i can hardly contain my joy
when my boy holds my face
and my girl sings her songs
and it feels like all of existence is winking in my direction
i hear you

you are not what i named you
you are not nameable at all
but the echo of a voice is ringing everywhere
and the antenna i left on that old house
picks it up more and more
this beautiful illusion
the most real of illusions
is good enough for me.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Stockholm Syndrome

This blog has been mostly off-topic lately, as things related to faith and atheism have been far from my mind for awhile, but I had an a-ha moment today that IS on topic, and seemed worth saving.

It's been about 16 years since my last experience of leaving church.  The first time, it was the result of going off to college, followed by a slow unlearning of my childhood faith.  The second time was recorded here.  Since then, the emotional cycle has involved feelings of loss, anger, disappointment, and regret, not necessarily in that order.  But today I've felt a bit of relief in realizing that it was probably inevitable.  Somehow I think inevitability might be a pretty good pain reliever.

If I put myself back into my pre-college believer mindset, my mindset looks something like this:  I believe certain things about God and Jesus.  These things are important to me, and are the most important aspects of who I am.  They influence everything about how I live my life, including my values, friends, voting habits, and ethics.  I gain a lot of validation from those who are like-minded.  Part of the value of going to church is that I'm surrounded by those who value what I value, and believe what I believe.  At church, we worship God together, gaining strength to face the outside world.  The world is an adversary, but here, among other believers, there is life and community.  We can relax here.

From this perspective, it's no wonder that an adding a non-believer to the mix would cause problems.  No matter what song we sing, or verse we read, or testimony we speak, the non-believer is out there, not buying any of it.  The non-believer doesn't have to say anything, or argue with anyone.  Just by virtue of using the word atheist, the non-believer reduces my most cherished things to little more than a fairy tale.  To the non-believer, my prayers are to an imaginary friend.  My songs aren't falling on the ears of anyone but the church attenders, and the only thing guiding my behavior is my conscience.  The non-believer insults my core being without having to say a word.  And no matter how watered down we make the concept of God, or The Word, or Light, to the non-believer, it's all the same: As far as they can tell, it's not real, even if they wish it could be. 

From this perspective, a lack of trust is easy to understand.  It makes sense that to be part of the club of believers, the person should actually be a believer.  It also makes sense that it would be difficult to be vulnerable around the non-believer, or care much what the non-believer has to say.  Why trust someone who thinks my most cherished beliefs are no more real than Bigfoot?

From this perspective, showing up was a mistake.  But it's a mistake that's easy to remedy for all involved.  Nobody should have to feel mocked by implication. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

5w6: We're Here, We're Repressed, and We Don't Wanna Talk About It!

A few months ago I was introduced to the Enneagram, a personality test with a lot of interesting things to say, with a touch of new age woo mixed in just for fun.  As with all of these tests, some of it is spot on, some of it isn't, but there were parts that put words to aspects of my personality I hadn't had words for.  For that, I'm abundantly appreciative.

Per the Enneagram, I'm blessed or cursed to be a type 5, sub-titled the Investigator, or Observer.  The website sums it up this way:

We have named personality type Five The Investigator because, more than any other type, Fives want to find out why things are the way they are. They want to understand how the world works, whether it is the cosmos, the microscopic world, the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms—or the inner world of their imaginations. They are always searching, asking questions, and delving into things in depth. They do not accept received opinions and doctrines, feeling a strong need to test the truth of most assumptions for themselves.

That last sentence sounds noble when it's phrased that way, but it's not necessarily a positive personality trait.  The way it presents in me is that almost everything that goes into my brain gets filtered through a series of questions: "What's this person's motive?  Who are they trying to persuade?  If nobody that's listening is likely to disagree, why are they saying it?  Why is everything mindless signaling with no authentic discussion?  Am I just signaling? I think I hate my in-group."

This kind of filter makes it REALLY hard to be a joiner.  Because everything goes through the filter, I tend to summon objectivity in times when it's damaging to me and others.  Since my brain examines things 50 different ways all at once, I'll find a piece of what someone has said that isn't true, or isn't entirely honest, and I'm not always good at keeping that realization to myself.  For example, I'm a reluctantly pro-choice person.  But the way most like-minded people discuss the issue is so frustrating!  My options are usually to be the asshole that disagrees with everyone, nit-picking trivial points until everyone wishes they'd never brought it up, or to shut up and repress it. 90% of the time, I go with the latter.  

Repression is probably the area where the Enneagram has been most helpful.  Once the type 5 is separated into 2 categories, the description looks like this:

The 6 wing brings an orientation to detail and technical knowledge, along with the tendency to think in logical sequence. Especially intellectual, far more analytical than Fives with a 4 wing. Can be loyal friends, offering strong behind-the-scenes support. Kind, patient teachers, skillful experts. May have a sense of mission and work hard. Sometimes project an aura of sensitive nerdiness and have clumsy social skills. When defensive, they can be unnerved by the expectations of others. May like people more but avoid them more. Especially sensitive to social indebtedness. Could have trouble saying "thank you." Fear of taking action, develop "information addiction" instead. Ask lots of questions but don't get around to the decision at hand. When more entranced, they develop a suspicious scrutiny of other people's motives but can also be blind followers. Misanthropic and Scrooge-like when defensive. More able to keep their feelings cut off in a constant way. Can be cold, skeptical, ironic, and disassociated. A Five's 6 wing can be phobic or counterphobic. Counterphobic 6 wing brings courage and antiauthoritarian attitudes. When defensive they may mock authority, or angrily tell others off. Tend to "push the envelope," experiment, find what the limits are.

The last year has been rough.  Most of my life has been fairly free of strong emotion.  It's just how I've always been.  The highs aren't that high, and the lows aren't that low.  For whatever reason, I've become a much more emotional person, and it's the worst!  Some of the emotions are recent and identifiable.  "That awful thing happened, and now I'm sad."  Easy enough to identify.  Some of the emotions are decades old, and I had no idea they existed.  For example, I've been getting back into disc golf again, and watching YouTube videos of various tournaments trying to pick up mechanics and habits I can emulate. Putting those into action on the course, I've gotten a lot better really quickly.  I had the best round of my life over the weekend, and on the way home I was able to identify an emotion that's about 20 years old.  

As a kid, almost everything came easy to me.  I was one of the top picks on the playground for just about any sport, and won various awards in little league.  My formative years produced a healthy confidence that has served me well my whole life.  But in 8th grade, my natural abilities succumbed to the earned-through-practice abilities of others, and I was no longer king of the ball field.  Until this weekend it had never occurred to me that losing my status as athletic phenom had caused any kind of pain.  I just moved onto other things like choir and youth group, preferring to stick with things I could excel at.  But playing that round of disc golf, and playing it well, brought back feelings of pride I hadn't felt since I was 14, and with that, the feelings of loss that never surfaced all those years ago.  How strange it is to find a mystery inside your own head.

A writer I enjoy developed what he calls the typical mind fallacy, wherein people tend to project their own mental processes onto others, then judge others' actions based on how they think they themselves would have handled the situation.  Becoming aware of my own feelings could be a great way to break out of the typical mind fallacy.  Some of you wonderful people have the ability to recognize and deal with your feelings in real time!  Crazy!  My task to is to remember that next time I want to roll my eyes because someone freaks out over something little.  Yours is to forgive me if I take a year to get over something that seems little to you.  It's likely that even the smallest emotion looks like a kraken to me.  And I don't have any experience fighting krakens. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Herding Cats

My empathy skills are not very good, but I think I have enough of it to say this: being a church elder is really hard. Being a Quaker church elder is even harder.

I imagine a leadership role in Quakerism is a bit like herding cats.  Quakers tend to be ex-something else.  Some find Quakerism as an escape from an oppressive conservative tradition.  Some find value in it as a more ritualized form of Unitarianism.  Still others come into it entirely ignorant of what Quakerism is, but insist that their own ideas fit within Quakerism just fine, thank you very much (this is me).  Like I said - cats.  A cornucopia of chaos.

Liberal Quakers are so leery of anyone having religious power, that elders become little more than bookkeepers with a title.  Evangelical Quakers tend to go farther.  Elders volunteer to organize and lead meetings, help people deal with spiritual crises, and resolve internal conflicts.  When outside groups want to blame the pastor for decisions made by the whole church, elders are there to take the proverbial bullet.

Sometimes, conflicts arise that don't have easy answers.  Or any answers.  Elders can be presented with complaints from one person against another, and as an elder, sometimes there isn't a right thing to say.  From the congregation floor, it's easy to pick a side and lob bombs.  Elders don't have that luxury.  Their job is to look after and care for everyone, even the person on the "wrong side."  Sometimes this means taking criticism that isn't theirs, even if the criticism could be nullified with a few simple sentences.  Because to pacify one person often means casting someone else in a bad light, and an elder doesn't do that.  They can't.  And that's hard.

Recently I watched an elder walk an amazing tightrope.  While being kicked out of the broader religious organization, this elder defended the elders of the broader group.  She did it politely, but her point was strong; These elders have been handed an impossible task.  They made a choice.  I don't like their choice, but they had to make a choice, and they did.  They probably wish the choice had never been presented to them.  But as elders, impossible choices come with the title.  The conflict begins with the bomb thrower, not the defense system.

In my recent difficulties with church, the elders had a hard situation presented to them that they didn't ask for.  I liken it to a parent with 30 kids being confronted by one child complaining about another child. The parent may feel it most prudent to approach the complainee with the complaint, and see if the parent can resolve it as an intermediary. Another parent might have said, "don't make me the referee, talk to your brother directly."  Either choice makes sense.  And if you haven't been confronted with that situation before, and it hadn't occurred to you that it was even possible, it's hard to place much blame on the parent no matter which decision is made.  I certainly don't.

Blame is not a word I like very much.  In the internet era, we seem to feel like if we can strongly connect the out-group with enough blame, we can absolve our own responsibilities for things that go wrong.  Personal relationships, including church relationships, should be an area where we don't look for blame, even if we can find it.  And what good does finding  blame do for us?  Does it solve the problem?  Does it heal wounds?

I've discovered recently that I process things via images.  Some people think in sentences, I think in pictures.  For awhile, I envisioned my future a bit like a hallway.  Certain things were set in place, and were likely to be there for a long, long time.  Now in my mind, my future is an open plain.  There's not a lot built up on the horizon.  Options are open, and the city is behind me in the distance.  Out here on the plains, it's up to me to process my pains and internal conflicts.  It's up to me to decide what's healthiest and most likely to bring happiness.  Who am I?  Who do I want to be?  With whom do I want to surround myself?

My hope is that the church will ask these same questions.  Who are we?  Who do we want to be?  With whom do we want to surround ourselves?  And I hope they will do this without looking for blame for past events.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Ask me again," said the Rabbi

Enneagram Type 5 - The Investigator

Thinkers who tend to withdraw and observe
Enneagram type 5 - The InvestigatorPeople of this personality type essentially fear that they don't have enough inner strength to face life, so they tend to withdraw, to retreat into the safety and security of the mind where they can mentally prepare for their emergence into the world. Fives feel comfortable and at home in the realm of thought. They are generally intelligent, well read and thoughtful and they frequently become experts in the areas that capture their interest. While they are sometimes scientifically oriented, especially with the Six wing, just as many Fives are drawn to the humanities and it is not at all uncommon for Fives to have artistic inclinations. Fives are often a bit eccentric; they feel little need to alter their beliefs to accommodate majority opinion, and they refuse to compromise their freedom to think just as they please. The problem for Fives is that while they are comfortable in the realm of thought, they are frequently a good deal less comfortable when it comes to dealing with their emotions, the demands of a relationship, or the need to find a place for themselves in the world. Fives tend to be shy, nonintrusive, independent and reluctant to ask for the help that others might well be happy to extend to them.


A year ago, I delivered a message at West Hills Friends the Sunday following the 2014 Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions.  I was unusually optimistic, expressing hope that the expulsion that once seemed inevitable might be avoided, and unity restored among people who claim to be people of peace.  A year later, West Hills has been kicked out, and I am processing an indefinite departure from West Hills.  Here's a rough timeline:

In September of 2014, following the loss of Griffin Huber, I applied for membership at West Hills Friends Church.  I'd not intended to ever apply, but in the midst of tragedy, Sarah and I both felt that we were just as affected by sorrow as everyone else, and to refuse to called a member, for me at least, felt like petty stubbornness.  The process, as had always been explained from the pulpit, was that a person applies for membership by notifying the church elders of a desire to become a member.  The person meets with 2 of the elders for a clearness discussion, which centers around 2-3 queries.  The queries don't have right answers, but the discussion about them should make it clear to the applicant and the elders whether the person should be a member.  It's also been said that becoming a member is simply recognizing that a person already is operating as a member.  If the applicant and the elders are clear to move forward, the applicant is brought before the church to be recognized.  People are invited to comment about the person for awhile, and finally an elder asks if everyone is clear to approve the person as a member.  In the time we'd been there (2 years at this point), everyone who applied had become a member.

Sarah and I went through our process separately.  I thought this was important, as our journeys and worldviews are very different, and our interactions within West Hills had been very different as well. I met with 2 elders, went through the queries, and we were all clear that I was already a member of West Hills, and we agreed to move forward.  The elders met as a group, and all were clear that both Sarah and I should be members of the church.

We were scheduled to be brought before the church the Sunday before Christmas.  The Wednesday before, we received an email from one of the elders that opened like this:

Dear Ryan and Sarah,

I’ve got some difficult news-- a member of our meeting has come forward with serious reservations about Ryan’s membership, specifically as you might surmise, around his atheism.   We (the Elders & (pastor)) hear that these concerns are serious enough that they would present a block to reaching unity on approving Ryan’s membership at the rise of meeting this Sunday.  

It is our sense that the most constructive next step is for the Elders to arrange a meeting to hear these concerns in person, and to share our own discernment, and see if that is sufficient to open a way forward.  

One thing I've learned about myself in the last year is that I'm awful at predicting my feelings.  My initial response to the elder was essentially that this was no big deal.  I could be patient, and understood why it might be hard for someone to handle an atheist as a member.  I didn't feel much of anything about the matter until a month later when a listening meeting was scheduled for people to discuss the general topic of membership.  At this meeting, I heard such gems as:

"This is Jesus' clubhouse.  And if you're not cool with this being Jesus' clubhouse, perhaps this isn't the place for you."

"I recently sent (the pastor) an email asking, "Are we even a Christian church anymore?""

"If all it takes to be a member is to be a good person, someone could just join the rotary club."

Following this meeting, my emotions caught up with what my mind already knew.  This was not going to work out.  You can only clumsily try to fit a square peg in a round hole for so long.  Eventually it becomes obvious that one of these things is not like the other.

My anger about the situation wasn't so much that someone had an issue with atheists.  This is common.  Fundamentalism isn't reserved solely for actual fundamentalists.  I knew this already.  What got me the most was that someone was allowed to exert control over me anonymously.  I wasn't told who was objecting to my membership.  They didn't have to face me, or know anything about how it might affect me.  They got to complain without their name being known, then walk away.

(It's an unfortunate irony:  People had enough information to block my membership because I did what everyone is constantly asked to do.  I participated.  I spoke.  Had I never given a message, or been open about my ideas, I'd be a member right now, just like the other atheists who are members at West Hills.)

I stayed home for a few Sundays.  The elders and pastors bent over backwards to apologize for how things went, and did their best to make me feel wanted.  Eventually one of them told me enough information that I could figure out who was blocking my membership.  I don't know if that made it easier, but it was nice to know.  It wasn't anyone close to me.  Wasn't even anyone I'd ever had a conversation with.  Still, Quakers speak as a group.  If they decide something, they do it with consensus.  If they decide not to do something, like approve someone as a member, they also do that as a group, even if it's only a handful of people holding up the majority.  This allows individuals to exercise an extraordinary amount of power over others.

For the last six months, I've waffled a lot.  Some Sundays it seems like it would hurt more to show up somewhere unpleasant than stay home, so I stay home.  Other Sundays I go because I miss people, and that's the best place to see them simultaneously.  Either way, the trust is gone.  The feeling of "I'm affected as much as everyone else" has been replaced with "I'm the only person in the last 10 years to have their membership blocked."  That very few people knew about any of this didn't help.  I've chosen not to speak about it publicly.  I don't know how.  There are people who are quite content to share their pain out loud, and eat up the attention this brings.  I'm not one of those people.  It's uncomfortable, and requires vulnerability, and I suck at both of those things.

Last week, Northwest Yearly Meeting decided to "release" West Hills from the yearly meeting.  Some people felt like a freed hostage.  But most felt some level of pain and rejection.  As usual, at first, I felt nothing.  I've been emotionally detached from West Hills for so long that I don't identify as one of them.  This didn't feel like personal rejection.

As people began to express their feelings about being kicked out, my feelings started to surface also.  But they haven't been feelings about NWYM.  They've been feelings about membership rejection, and the loss of a trusted community.  These people get to grieve their loss together.  I had to deal with mine alone.  I understand their pain, but in a way, I resent it.  The group that rejected me has been rejected.  While this isn't really what happened (the first part, anyway), it's how it feels.  And it's hard to listen to.  The membership process is still the same.  It can still be used to bludgeon someone else.  The gatekeepers can still gatekeep, and nobody knows they're doing it

I showed up to Quakerism looking for a way to quit being so afraid of death, and for my kids to be given the chance to ask God questions in an LGBT affirming place.  That first part of that mission has been quite successful.  Sarah will continue the second part.  In the process, for awhile, I found a community of people that felt like they were my people.  Eventually it became clear that they aren't.  After all, Quakers think God is guiding the group decision making.  With that as a central tenant, I was naive to think that as someone who doesn't think anyone is guiding anything, it would be possible to have both worldviews in the same church indefinitely. I'm persuaded that we have little to no control over our thoughts.  Faith is a kind of thought over which I have no control.  But to the faithful, thoughts matter more than anything else.  To be faithless among people who need their faith more than they need people does not seem like a good match.

Shortly after the listening meetings at West Hills, my small group of elders talked about moving forward with my membership.  They seemed mildly surprised when I told them I was no longer interested.  With West Hills having been kicked out of NWYM, and with the elders and pastoral staff having no appetite to appeal that decision, I'm hopeful that people will understand why after all of this, continuing at West Hills seems like a poor decision.  I've waffled too much already, and am likely to tell people different things about how I'm doing depending on the day they ask me.  I don't think I can get clarity if I'm begging the question by continuing to show up.  I'm giving myself the rest of the year to do other things with my time.  I've got a lot more hiking to do and books to read.  I'm hopeful that the time away will confirm that I'm making the right decision in walking away, or give me the perspective I need to try again.

Some day, I want to feel like this: