A Fool’s Journey into Quakerly Friendship by Paul Blankenship

Tarot

Rob lights a match. He reaches into a small yellow pouch and pulls out a gathering of dried lavender. He breaks the lavender, gently, and tears off a small piece. I am absorbed in the sound it makes, the little crack. Rob places the broken lavender above the match. It catches fire. He blows on the fire, blows out the fire and the match. The lavender burns slowly, and smokes. A kind, friendly aroma fills the room.

The room is different now.  The match, the breaking, the smell. I am different now. Different now in this different room.

Rob shuffles the deck. Cut it, he says. Rob spreads the Tarot cards on the carpet, in front of my knees. He hovers the burning lavender above the cards. The smoke is wild now, wafting and filling the room.

The cards are blue and green. On the back of each card is an image of a large eye. I am looking at something looking at me, something with some kind of life. Rob tells me to pick a card. Pick the card that is pulling you toward it, he says.

The end of all things

I wasn’t supposed to be there. In that room with Rob, or at all. In the first place, the world should have ended some time ago. 5 years ago, if my math is correct. And Tarot cards: they were a tool of the devil, a titillating snare to seduce weak souls. Magic from the dark side.

I began learning about the end of all things in elementary school. In between math and science lessons, as the weather held rather steady at 75 degrees in San Diego, we’d watch videos of people disappearing into thin air on their way to church or the grocery store. We called it the rapture. God took good Christians to heaven. He raptured them. He left sinners behind. Sinners would wonder where their friends went. They would panic when they realized what happened. Sinners had to learn how to survive on earth as its oceans turned to blood, swarms of locusts filled the air, and the Antichrist rose to power. We called that the tribulation.

By the late 1990s, things got particularly intense in my religious world. People were buying land in far off places in case God’s wrath started dripping down, early, from the heavens and causing catastrophic earthly scenes. In Bible class, I wrote the entire Book of Revelation in red ink. I addressed it to an “unsaved friend.” Dear Mark, it read. God loves you. Please read this book and you will be saved. Something to that effect. I wish I still had the book. I would frame it, frame it to remind myself that beautiful people come to believe ugly things, that we are all beautiful people who sometimes believe ugly things.

Problem was, though: I wasn’t at all convinced that I’d be raptured. I sinned. A lot. And I liked sinning. Sinning was fun. So, I spent my youth between rebellion and a tragic religious imagination. I built tree houses I could survive the tribulation in. I kissed girls and asked them to get on their knees with me to repent—lest God come back mid smooch. So, I was kinda weird. I listened to secular CDs – and then burned them in the desert when I got on a spiritual high. In the middle of the night, I’d wake up in terror. Please God, I’d pray, don’t leave me behind. Don’t leave me to drown in bloody water, get eaten by locusts, and marked by the Beast. Come back if you have left, please come back.

All of this was very real to me. During my senior year of high school, when the whole rapture thing started to seem ridiculous and like a real form of child abuse, our campus pastor told us during morning announcements that the end of all things is immanent. Here. The stock market is going to crash, he said. Iran has nuclear missiles pointed at us. Are you ready to go? Will you be saved? Where will you spend forever? Is your heart white as snow? On the last chapel before Christmas recess, the whole school held hands. Pastor encouraged us to say goodbye. He said this could be our last time seeing one another until heaven. The year was 1999. We were weeks away from Y2K. And Al Gore, many speculated, was the antichrist.

The Fool

So, it is strange to be here. Strange to be in the room with Rob, strange even to bring you into the room with Rob. But here we are.

I pick a card. I pick the card that is pulling me, the eye that compels me. I take a deep breath and breathe the lavender in, the lavender that has filled the room with a friendly aroma. A holy smoke. I turn the card over.

You picked the fool, Rob said. You, he said, are the fool.

I didn’t like that. I felt cheated. I wanted to pick another card. I wanted to be a sage, not a sucker. Who wants to be a fool? Especially then. I had just signed divorce papers. I had also just started a PhD program. My colleagues came from Harvard and Yale, Stanford and the University of Chicago. Where’d you get your master’s degree, they’d always ask. Nobody ever heard of my small, historically Pentecostal school in Orange County. I needed a card of strength, not silliness. A cure for the imposter syndrome.

Rob saw my discontent. He knew I didn’t want to be the fool, that I wanted to pick another card. He laughed. He laughed because he understood, because he felt that way too.

A fool isn’t an idiot, he said. A fool is brave. A fool isn’t weak, he said. He is courageous. A fool is willing to live humbly before the journey into the unknown, humbly before the mysterious force of good that pulls her toward faith, hope, and love. He said that 1 Corinthian encourages all Christians to become fools. To become fools for Christ, fools for the Gospel, fools for the Good News. To give up everything for faith, hope, and love.

Now I like being a fool. I’d rather be a fool than a king or a sage. I like seeing myself on a journey. I like trusting the wind and the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I like being humble and the fact that I don’t have all the answers. That I have just a few answers and that my answers are mostly questions. Questions about how to love a wounded world, sow peace amid great violence, and experience joy.

And I like that my fool’s journey has brought into a Quakerly Friendship – that, though I still wander in diverse religious wonder, I feel called to make a home among the Society of Friends. Today I celebrate that call. Let me tell you why. There are one million and one reasons why Quakerism has called me home, but here are five, written very briefly, so that we can soon ease into a time of Waiting Worship before our Beloved, before the Light that burns in and all around us. Each Quakerly call home is related to a spiritual practice I have learned among Friends—that is, different ways I have seen Quakers struggle to make real the deep dream of Friendship with Christ and one another.

The first time I entered a Quaker church felt like a homecoming. I can’t tell you exactly why I felt at home in a place I’d never been. It’s odd. There are reasons, and there aren’t reasons. It was at Camas Friends in Washington. I came at the request of the pastor, Matt Boswell, to speak about my research with people experiencing homelessness.

Matt is gentle. You can hear it in his voice. You can feel it in his handshake. You can see it in his eyes. Matt did not tell me what to say when I came to Camus Friends. Instead, he just invited me to share what God put on my heart. I found that gentle. And the meeting itself embodied a gentleness. No one came up to me after the service and asked what I believe. They did not feel the compulsion to determine if I was an insider or an outsider. I did not feel the subtle violences so pervasive in religious congregations and social interactions. The Quaker church first called me home because it practices a spirituality of gentleness.

 

I came to Spokane Friends about a year and a half ago. My first memory is listening to Linda Nixon share a concern about her animals. It struck me as deeply lovely. I loved that she cared for her animals enough to ask us to pray for them. I also loved that we made time to listen to Linda. I love that we share big and small things at Spokane Friends during our joys and concerns. I love that we try to listen to each other with nonjudgmental devotion. The Quaker church calls me home because it practices a spirituality of compassionate attentiveness to our everyday joys and concerns.  

George Fox taught that there is that of God in everyone. He taught that there is a divine light that burns within each one of us regardless of who we are and what we have done. He taught that we don’t need a special mediator to discover and discern The Light. There is no need for a preacher or a priest, a prophet or a queen, a sage or a fool. Galatians puts the radical proposition well: all are one in Christ. Jon Maroni spoke profoundly about this last week in his sermon. Robert Barclay described the Quaker meeting as a place where there are “many candles lighted in one place.” In the Quaker world, no one has a better, more powerful light than anyone else. Everyone’s light is beautiful, everyone’s light is important, everyone’s light is needed. We are all needed. Everyone has a place. Everyone is worth fighting for. That is one reason we practice Open Worship. In Open Worship, we listen to that of God in ourselves and each other because we all need each other to see ourselves. So, when we feel moved by the Beloved to do so, we speak. We read Psalms. We sing a song spontaneously. We cry. We breathe. Or we just let our silence speak, our language perhaps most fitting for godly things. Quakerism calls me home because it tries to embody a spirituality of shared power, communal discernment, and a deep listening to that of God in everyone. In a world of rampant and outrageous abuses of power, I can hardly think of a more critical spirituality to learn.

Life is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. It is no easy stroll through generous woods and enchanted forests. Our bodies are finite. They grow old, become ill, die. Despite our best effort, our dreams perish and fall to the ground like a wounded bird. It rains on the just and the unjust. Social suffering is unevenly distributed. Go downtown. See how we care for the mentally ill on our streets. See how we imprison and punish rather than rehabilitate and restore. It is easy to buckle under the weight of suffering in our world, to succumb to despair, bitterness, and hopelessness. We should always remember: George Fox converted because of joy. Margaret Fell converted because of joy. Quakerism spread like wildfire because of joy, because people came to experience the Living Flame of Beauty and Gentle Power. In his Journal, Fox wrote: “And when all my hopes in … all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor tell what to do, then, on then, I heard a voice which said: ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

I see joy all over our meeting—it is on the wall, of course, but it is also living in our members. I experience it in Lois as she works diligently to prepare our Bulletin, our Newsletter. In how she loves this meeting. I see it in Bill when he speaks about his love for horses. In how he loves animals and how animals care for us. I heard in John last week as he shared about his passion for Quakerism and how it helped him overcome the spiritual sickness of rigid judgmentalism. I see it in Sue Keenan when she talks about a good book. In how she loves talking about a good book with good friends. Quakerism calls me home because its members demonstrate that real joy is real thing.

orgive me for saying this, but Quakerism be danged. I think George Fox and Margaret Fell would agree. Quakerism itself is not what really matters. It can die and strangle itself on fear and rigidity like any other religion. The history of Quakerism is important, but it is not what really matters today. What really matters about Quakerism is of course not the famous Quakers Oats Man or any other famous Quaker person. What really matters about Quakerism is the compassionate, Christ-like friendship that we develop with one another. And with our community. You have all, each of you, taught me that kind of friendship. By inviting me into you’re your homes, taking me out to lunch, sharing a beer, a conversation. By generously supporting me in my journey through higher education. What matters, though, is not just how friendly you are with me. One of the most beautiful expressions of friendship I have seen recently is when, last month, we brought people of different faiths to our meeting to share what we might learn about their faith and how we can develop a kind of public friendship with them. Quakerism calls me home because it shows me that real spiritual friendship is possible, that real spiritual friendship is in fact one of the most beautiful things we can experience in this life. Good friendship makes me shake, bring me joy. It causes my Inner Fire to move from a small flicker to raging flame.

What the heck is a Quaker? There will be as many answers to that question as there are Quakers. For me, a Quaker is a friend who helps you find your own way home: home within yourself and home within the world as you leave yourself and live courageously into an unknown, beautiful, hurting world.

Everyone needs a place. A place to stand, sit, sleep, sing, rejoice, cry, listen, and learn. A place to heal. A place to make a mistake. To confess. To make amends. We all need an anchor. A dwelling. A home. The Quaker church feels like home because of all of you, because of that of God in you: because of your gentleness, your loving attention, your empowerment, your joy, and your friendship. Thank you for helping a fool find his way home by being faithful to the call of love Our Beloved. There are many fools out there, many people looking for a way home. Try to always be who you really are to them.

 

This message was given to Spokane Friends Meeting by Paul Blankenship on February 16, 2002.

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