Answer to That of God in Everyone
Friday, July 18, 2008
By Ruth Flower, Associate Executive Secretary for Legislative Program
Thank you for asking me to come and be your Friend in Residence - I am delighted to be among North Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends. To those of us with Pacific Yearly Meeting roots, you seem like our "cousins to the north" in another little piece of God's country. I look forward to the time I'll spend with you in workshops and with the children and young people. This part, I have to admit, scares me a bit. I'm not normally up in front of a yearly meeting, unless it's to deliver my committee's report. But I know you'll help me out.
First, I'll need your help in getting our visual aids in place. I have a projection screen here that Marge is going to help me pull down. [Mime a screen.] Can everyone see the screen? Ok, good. We'll need that a little later. We'll also need the small laptops that were placed under your seats, so you might want to get those out and boot them up.
The call to "Answer to that of God in everyone" brings our faith smack into the middle of our everyday lives. There are lots of challenges in this phrase. For some, the first challenge might be the use of the word "God"; I invite you to invest the traditional language with whatever meanings your own explorations have opened to you so far. We all have different windows on the divine.
For many of us, the biggest challenge might be that word "everyone" So let's start by bringing "everyone" into this room. I want you to take a minute to think about someone that you'd rather not apply this teaching to - perhaps you find it extra difficult to answer to that of God in some particular person. Think about that person, and use your laptop projector to put their image up on the screen here. (There's a button there on your laptop that says "my everyone.") They'll be with us, our challenges, as we work through this together. When we all have our images up, we should have a pretty large collage of faces - they'll all be with us, but don't worry, you'll only be able to see the one face that you put up there. I see them all - oh, yes, we have some challenges. (Aren't you just dying to know if someone put your face up there?)
When I think of the word "everyone" in this teaching, I think about an FCNL intern from years ago who gave a book on peace to Senator Jesse Helms - who just passed away last week. We were giving these books to every member of Congress - usually by local Friends or our general committee members. But nobody wanted to give the book to Jesse Helms. So a new intern named Michael came to town from NC. He said "sure, I'll do it." So he took the book and was heading for Jesse Helms' office, when - who should he see but Jesse Helms himself coming down the hall with his aide. Michael walked right up to him clapped his arm around the senator's shoulders and said, "Jesse, I believe thee should read this - it's all about how all the religions of the world believe in a peaceful world." Jesse Helms mumbled something incoherent, but took the book… who knows what happened from there? I learned from Michael what "everyone" meant that day. No exceptions.
Take a minute now, if you would, and think about the person you put up on the screen and why it is hard to see that of God in this person. Share with the person next to you a few adjectives that describe this person and the particular challenges they pose for you (Now if it is the person next to you that you put on the screen, you might want to quickly select another candidate. We might not have enough time to go there.)
So - "answering to that of God in everyone" has some practical day to day applications that have to do with interweaving faith and work - faith and living.
And, for me, it has a lot to do with where anger lives in our souls and our lives.
I want to share with you some bits and scraps from my own bumpy spiritual path so far, so that we'll all be clear that I come to you in the middle of an experiment that could go either way, rather than as the person waiting for a call from the Nobel prize committee. I haven't got it all figured out.
In high school and college, I was intrigued by the fairly specific gospel teachings about how to live: "for I was in prison and you visited me, naked and you clothed me, a stranger and you took me in." Jesus promised amazing rewards for those described by the beatitudes: people who were meek, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers. These people would inherit the earth, would be called children of God, and somehow most intriguing to me, would "see God."
I wondered then how anyone could "see God" - especially in this life.
There came a time when I felt I had to do something in my own life about these teachings; I guess if I'd been a Quaker then, I would have said I felt "called." So I quit school and joined VISTA to work on inner city poverty in Denver. I worked with kids, teenagers, who were being abused and kicked out by their families. I worked with their families who were being abused and kicked out by the whole society. I was 19, 20 years old. I was horrified at what I saw and very, very angry about it all.
It was not peaceful or peace-filled work. I did not "see God" in any of this work; God seemed to have abandoned the kids I cared about. As I saw it, God was claimed as the personal partner of some of the people doing the most harm to these kids and their families.
But I met a Quaker during those years - my first Quaker. Mary was my VISTA partner and roommate; she was brash and honest and down to earth, and completely convinced that we could do something about the heartache we encountered every day. She stayed in my mind for many years - she, and our long, late-into-the night conversations about Quakers.
Fast forward to law school where I went to look for more tools to "change the world." I volunteered during law school in a legal clinic for low income workers and on a prison law project. And I looked for Quakers again.
I found some -- in Davis, CA. They seemed like a very ordinary bunch of people, very nice. A lot like my friend Mary in their honesty and down-to-earth goodness. But, I figured, these people haven't seen what I've seen. They're not angry because they don't know how evil people can be to one another.
I thought that until I heard a reference from one family in my meeting about their parents' experience of losing all their land and being confined by the U.S. government in an internment camp, simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.
I thought that until, in a worship group in Pacific Yearly Meeting, I was advised by one elderly man to "learn to love the guards" in my work in the California prisons. This man, it turned out, was a survivor of the German concentration camps for Jews and others in WWII.
I held on to my anger for a number of years, while I met one extraordinary person after another - the nurse back from Vietnam who had opened a hospital for civilians whose limbs were blown off by landmines, Salvadoran refugees running and hiding from a U.S. sponsored war, and the people who operated an underground railroad to get them to safety. People who knew what the world was like, and loved anyway.
I came to appreciate that very ordinary people might know, in their hearts, extraordinary things and might do extraordinary things.
And I learned more about Quakers and our teachings and how we keep on learning. I heard the notion "Speak Truth to Power," which spoke to some parts of my soul. I understood it to mean that "we have the truth, and they have the power." It seemed to be best delivered with a fist in the air and a good amount of oppositional energy.
I learned later about the ground-breaking work done to prepare an AFSC pamphlet by that name - "Speak Truth to Power - by a team of 14 weighty Quaker peace activists during the McCarthy years. The pamphlet described an active role for people of peace, at a time when pacifists were assumed to be passive and out of the game. The pamphlet described power as belonging not only to government and other decision makers, but also to people just living in the United States, the most powerful country in the world. We all bear some responsibility for our own power. [As a prisoner friend of mine used to say "Lady, you live in the heart of the beast, and what's more you speak it's language. Don't ever forget that.]
What "truth" are we to speak? "That love endures and overcomes. That hatred destroys. That what is obtained by love is retained, and what is obtained by hatred proves a burden." My initial understanding of that iconic phrase didn't do justice to the work and insights and foresight of these Quaker leaders.
So speaking truth to power is speaking truth in love to ourselves and to each other.
If we're going to be speaking truth in love to each other, we need to have conversations.
Now, how many people here like talking? (I mean, we're Quakers, so I know this won't be everyone…) OK.
Now, how many people here like talking with other people? Ah, fewer. Well, you never know. You see people downtown bopping along with their cell phones - you think they're talking to other people, but you don't really know that, do you!
How many like talking with people that we think we disagree with? Ah, just a few hearty souls. We're not comfortable with disagreement, and sometimes we imagine the disagreement to be much bigger than it really is. I see there's a workshop specifically on this topic, so I don't want to go into very much here. But it's a piece of the puzzle about answering to that of God in everyone. "Answering" after all, implies a conversation.
Locating "that of God"
So let's think about this. If we're going to "answer" to that of God in everyone, we have to find it, right? And sometimes we get stumped right there, because the packaging that our "everyone" presents gets in the way. They're just too … what? - pick your adjective here - mean, arrogant, self-involved - your adjectives might have been different when you explained your "everyone" to the person next to you. But basically we sometimes feel we can't answer to that of God in another person, because we can't see God in that person. We get stumped.
Well here's the thing - we're not called to "see that of God" but to answer to it. Maybe we don't need to be able to pinpoint God's presence to be willing to answer to what our faith tells us is there. Maybe we're not ready to "see God" in the other person, but we can be open to answering anyway. We don't know that person's history or intentions or possibilities - but God does.
Listening - being present
Just like in meeting - we want to listen for what it is that God knows, and is willing to open to us. To do that, have to be fully present to the conversation we're having.
[Interruption by cell phone.] Now you would never do that -- interrupt a speech or an important conversation by paying attention to a call from somewhere else. Yet, I have to ask myself, how often do I do that very thing in meeting for worship, in the presence of God and these our Friends, by letting my mind wander off to to-do lists, last night's movie plot, or what I'd like to pick up at the farmers' market.
And yet, in conversations with "everyone," where we're charged to answer to that of God, we are in the presence of God as surely as when we sit in meeting. We have to be fully present to the possibilities.
Ironically, this sometimes means letting your heart lead with something other than your main agenda - your strategy for this meeting. In lobbying, this can work out very strangely. If you are a good lobbyist - and any of us can be - you think ahead of time about why you are visiting with the person, what your "ask" is, why they should listen to you, what all your logical and persuasive "talking points" might be. And then when you get into the conversation, you might pick up on something that supersedes your planned presentation - something very human being conveyed by the person you are visiting with. And you answer to that, because God calls us to compassion as much as to truth. It is in these moments that I have learned the most amazing things from congressional staffers, and have opened discussions at a level of truth that would never have happened if I had stuck to my own agenda.
[ - boss hearing ONLY from anti-immigrant groups - 10,000 calls]
[ - young woman with a small child who gets no help with child care, resistant to "special" help people on welfare get]
[ - boss who has a different solution to health care issue - but his probably won't pass, so maybe ultimately they'll go along with what the majority is promoting]
In these conversations, I hear frustration, a sense of powerlessness, a desire to be understood. Not very different from what each of us experiences from time to time.
Being open to that of God in these conversations is like expectant waiting in meeting for worship. Expectant waiting is the opposite of cynicism. Looking for openings and possibilities where, as far as we know, there are none. Then amazing things happen:
- Congressional aides from opposite parties to sit together in a room across the street from the Senate (at FCNL) to find some way forward, out of Iraq.
- Iraqi parliamentarians to tell their stories directly to members of Congress.
- A member whose district benefits directly from the production of a certain weapon system to agree to cut the funds for that weapon, and to defend that cut on the floor.
- Members of Congress speak on the floor of the House or the Senate about torture as a moral issue.
Answering to that of God in a situation might mean creating the space, in our own minds, for the possibility that God has something better in mind for a given situation. That way actually could open, and that we might not personally be the ones to find it… but it might be there.
Where does anger go?
So what do we do with the anger? Is this all about "making nice?" Last year, George Bush was making one of his many pronouncements about torture and secret prisons. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he was lying. Several of us were watching the speech on a TV in the office. An intern said - "He makes me so angry. How do you keep from getting so angry that you can't work?" One experienced staffer said, "Oh, you get used to it." But for me, that answer is debilitating. I don't think I'll ever get used to it - in fact, I hope I don't. There is so much that we see and know in our work and in the world that makes us very angry - and I think it should.
But the anger can't be the energy behind our work - it consumes and it burns out. It can't be the inventor of our plans and strategies - it's too limiting and leaves out too many possibilities. And it can't be the reason for our action, because it rests in judgment, which belongs to God. Anger is something we feel, just like joy and sadness and celebration. It's part of living.
However we "see God" - whatever our images or concepts of the eternal and infinite - creating space and possibilities and expectations in our interactions that we will answer to that of God in everyone leads us to a place that sustains our work - whatever we're called to - and our lives, wherever we are in them.
I hope you'll look back at the face on the screen now and open yourself to a glimpse of something past the packaging. God's there, as God is in each of us - even in our grumpiest, stupidest moments. There are possibilities ahead, depending on how we answer.