Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Religious Ideal

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Matthew 10:14

God never promises the perfect house of worship, city, and demographic makeup. Our own founder, George Fox, wandered for years in eternal search for those very things. My father's mother, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister, dragged my father from one preacher to another, hoping to find a cure for her numerous chronic illnesses. And yet her faith never wavered, though I would question the tactics employed by those who claimed to heal with Jesus' steady hand.

I had dreams, too. I wanted to be a trusted elder, in the best sense of the word. I wanted to see a generation of children born, reared, sent off to college, and hopefully to return when it came their time to be mothers and fathers. I wanted to be weighty in the best sense of the word, too, a person whose opinion could be trusted, whose wisdom was impeccable.

My dream is the dream of many. One of my Friends wishes she could live in a tight-knit Friends community roughly 200 years ago, a place where every child was known by name, as was every adult Friend. And here we could be peculiar together. Here we could be plain together. Here it didn't matter that we stuck out to the outside world.

What is your religious ideal? Have you experienced it in your own life? If you have, you've been extremely fortunate. Most people I've talked to have experienced times of great discord within their own Meeting, no matter how small, no matter how large. It might be foolish to believe in this ideal, and yet we yearn for it. For a while, we see it, we fall in love with our Meetings, just as much as we would another human. But within a year or two, the honeymoon is over and everything has cracks in it, cracks large enough to peer through. And the most ambitious of the reformers begin work there. Some succeed. Many fail.

In my own life, it's a matter of proportion. Like plants, those plants that flower beautifully must be able to choke out, or at least rescind the growth of the weeds. I believe what all know what weeds are. And without a spade or hoe or shovel, and, even more crucially, the willingness to use them, weeds take root very easily. There was a time we tended our gardens. But then we confused flowering plants with blight, and our numbers shrank.

So we over-corrected. We pretty much let anyone join and instead of ripping the roots out as needed and pruning, we let them grow wherever they wanted to grow. And others came, infested with weeds. These were allowed to stay as they were. And eventually, there were more weeds than there were healthy plants. But an army of weeds can overrule the robust plants, and so they did. We were no longer a healthy garden.

And this is a familiar story I hear from Friend to Friend, though perhaps not in those exact words. And reformers who fight weeds take aim against an uphill battle, seeking to undo the permissiveness that we created for reading out Friends for not marrying other Quakers or bidding farewell to those if they fought in the Civil War. We created both problems, which has complicated efforts of those who fight today to make changes.

This might not be a very popular sentiment, but I think that sometimes things either are or are not. I don't mean gay marriage or Republicans versus Democrats. I couldn't care less about political or ideological issues in a religious context. To me, these are secondary issues. Instead, I care about the fate of the Religious Society of Friends, and being afraid of exclusionary policies to the point of paralysis is one such issue. I'm bisexual. There, I said it. Should I be not allowed in Worship? Of course not. But tolerating any people who are the weeds in our garden, the toxic ones, they should be eldered (gently, with civility and love), and if they don't respond, they need to go.

Some years ago I was clerk of Ministry and Worship. A man was sharing too frequently during Meeting for Worship. Devising a way of confronting him was difficult. He didn't join a committee and never went downstairs for coffee. So I sat next to him and when it came time for shaking hands, I asked him if we could briefly step outside.

He agreed.

"Friend," I said. "Would you please consider spacing out your vocal ministry? What if you spoke only every other week, not every single week?"

He got nasty nice at me. He asked me under what authority I spoke. I identified the committee to which I belonged. Then he accused me of being the Meeting police, got huffy, left, and never returned.

That was never my intention. But when we do not tend our garden, weeds feel entitled to be there. He felt entitled to be heard, week in and week out. But weeds do not intend to beautify their surroundings. They are there for their own reasons.

Too many Meetings are full of weeds. They discourage flowering plants or force the genuine article to the side, away from the action. They make committee service a chore, rather than a pleasure. This is to say that every Meeting has its share of weeds. But when the healthy flowering plants are in control, so too is God's hand at work. God's purpose for our lives is at work in those situations.

Don't worry that a garden spade is a weapon. Don't confuse pacifism with passivism. Any garden needs pruning now and again. On work day, consider bringing your own tools, the ones that exist between your ears. If you don't do it, no one else will. No one's asking you to be a Southern Baptist. We deserve nothing less than our Religious Ideal.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

When Stalking Laws Fall Short

Editor's Note:

One day early. I lied.


Stalking has been a pertinent, highly publicized concern for women at least for the last twenty years. It has become many woman's personal nightmare, and paired with sexual assault, women's rights activists have pressed for legislation to strongly address it. It needs to be addressed, yet we lament a woman's very right to live in peace, one that could be under threat by deficient legal language, especially one not written for the internet age, but there is a problematic wrinkle to several particular pieces (and very crucial) legislation that already exists. The current statues are too clever by half.

Much like the phrase "rape", "stalking" is a loaded term that retains its ability to shock. One of the strongest anti-stalking law exists in the District of Columbia. It criminalizes any repeated communication to or about anyone, assuming a person you knew or even should have known would cause them to suffer emotional distress. Sometimes a scalpel can be used in place of an ax. This particular statue and what it legislates are often never cited when topics of this nature are brought in for the discussion.

D.C. Attorney GT Hunt, lawyer for three clients to follow, summarizes the legal situation like this.

Who could possibly oppose an anti-stalking law? Certainly not an elected official. The voting public is well-acquainted with stories of persons, usually women, who live in terror because someone, usually an ex-spouse or a rejected lover, is stalking them.

Often we learn of the stalking only after the victim has been murdered or seriously harmed. The stories fascinate, and are often terrifying, tragic, and outrageous. So every jurisdiction in the country has passed an anti-stalking law in the last two decades, and few officials or commentators have raised questions about their wisdom. But perhaps they should.
22 DC Code 3133(a)(3)(C) has been used to convict even polite, genial men who know better than to refuse to disregard boundaries. It has been used to convict an eccentric, but perfectly harmless man who left a series of polite messages for a D.C. Council employee, messages inviting her for lunch or coffee. It was also used as well to prosecute an ex-Scientologist activist involved in the Anonymous movement, a man who peacefully and consistently picketed their headquarters on 16th Street NW.

While motivated by good intentions, as Mr. Hunt suggests himself, I’m not happy with the notion that it’s a crime to ever hurt anyone’s feelings. This country was founded on the right to free speech and hurt many peoples' feelings. They called it the Declaration of Independence.

Passed into law in 2010, statue § 22–3133 refers specifically to Stalking. While some aspects of the law are clear, many others show some grey area. Emotional distress is a particularly difficult charge to make in court. Others are more cut and dry, but certain sections depend entirely upon interpretation. This is often what happens when we think that legislation is absolutely essential and called for by a clamorous public demanding judicial retribution. What this statute sought to protect was noble, but on at least two occasions, an overzealous interpretation completely missed the intent of the law. A difference exists between annoyance and fear. The statute confuses the two completely.

The Church of Scientology in Washington, DC, located at 16th Street NW, used this law to prosecute a particular zealous protester, anonsparrow1 AKA Brian Mandingo, who is one of the members of the Anonymous collective. Peaceful protest is freedom of speech held under the Constitution, and not meant to, in effect, stalk those who have a right to express their opinion. Fortunately, the judge threw out the charges against anonsparrow1, but a jury trial would have convicted him under this DC statue.

Charges filed against Jeffery Davis, also of the District of Columbia, are closer to the statue's original intent. Mr. Davis made five polite inquires, asking if a young District Columbia Council would have coffee with him. His first attempt was unsuccessful, though cordial, as all subsequent correspondences were. Later attempts were reported as stalking, though it should be noted that Mr. Davis was consistently pleasant in his persistence.

He was eventually arrested and tried under §§ 22–3133, the defendant stating that the young worker feared for her safety. This was not the judgment of the justice of the peace assigned to the case, who retained an audio copy of every inquiry Davis made towards her.

To say again, in both of these cases, as in the case made by our founding fathers to create this nation, it has never been against the law to hurt someone's feelings. While well-intentioned, § 22–3133, extremism in defense of liberty is indeed a great vice. At no point is the Violence Against Women legislation part of an anti-stalking piece of legislation. Instead, the stalking bill is a popular reform tacked on to pending legislation that upon further glance seems to legislate very little with a modicum of only a few words.

Read it for yourself.

(a) It is unlawful for a person to purposefully engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific individual:
(1) With the intent to cause that individual to:
(A) Fear for his or her safety or the safety of another person;
(B) Feel seriously alarmed, disturbed, or frightened; or
(C) Suffer emotional distress;
(2) That the person knows would cause that individual reasonably to:
(A) Fear for his or her safety or the safety of another person;
(B) Feel seriously alarmed, disturbed, or frightened; or
(C) Suffer emotional distress; or
(3) That the person should have known would cause a reasonable person in the individual's circumstances to:
(A) Fear for his or her safety or the safety of another person;
(B) Feel seriously alarmed, disturbed, or frightened; or
(C) Suffer emotional distress.
(b) This section does not apply to constitutionally protected activity.
(c) Where a single act is of a continuing nature, each 24-hour period constitutes a separate occasion.
(d) The conduct on each of the occasions need not be the same as it is on the other

We live in a climate saturated by fear. Cable networks peddle it. And then there are the violent movies and video games which we watch and our children watch. It doesn't take much of either men or women to constantly fear for their personal safety, to say nothing of the legitimate fears women have always faced. And while I'll admit that the rates of violence against women are certainly much too high, flawed statutes like these only cause resentment and defiance, perhaps even non-compliance.

Indeed, I am under the cross-hairs myself for being no one but me. I'm a large man, of a large build, with an intense personality. In these irrational times, someone might well accuse me, baselessly, with their own honest fear, of being the next workplace shooter. This is a reality I must face, as I attempt to smile more and be more jovial, when neither are my natural state of affairs. Fear often affects only the person who is said to be blamed.

And it should be emphasized as Robert Frost wrote in "Mending Wall", Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offense.

Quote of the Week

"You can't make poetry simply by avoiding cliché- Theodore Roethke

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday Video

Ain't got no home, ain't got no shoes
Ain't got no money, ain't got no class
Ain't got no skirts, ain't got no sweater
Ain't got no perfume, ain't got no beer
Ain't got no man

Ain't got no mother, ain't got no culture
Ain't got no friends, ain't got no schooling
Ain't got no love, ain't got no name
Ain't got no ticket, ain't got no token
Ain't got no God

Well what have I got?
Why am I alive anyway?
Yeah, what have I Got?
Nobody can take away

Got my hair, Got my head
Got my brains, Got my ears
Got my eyes, Got my nose
Got my mouth, I got my smile
I got my tongue, Got my chin
Got my neck, Got my boobs

Got my heart, Got my soul
Got my back, I got my sex
I got my arms, Got my hands
Got my fingers, Got my legs
Got my feet, Got my toes
Got my liver, Got my blood

I've got life, I've got my freedom
I've got life, I've got my life

And I'm gonna keep it
I've got my life
And nobody's gonna take it away
I've got my life

Friday, July 24, 2015

Something Big for Monday

The hospitalization threw me completely off, and has left me unable to read for long stretches of time. But I haven't lost my ability to write and am working on something massive for Monday. Thanks for being patient. Saturday Video and Quote of the Week will be posted, as always.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Quote of the Week

About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter.- Joan of Arc

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mental Illness: To Tell or Not to Tell

I've heard a variety of conflicting opinions about sharing my mental illness within a Meeting. In the best case scenario, I am lifted up as a symbol of courage in the face of adversity. In the worst case scenario, I am pitied in a condescending sort of fashion. My perspectives are discounted and the only thing people can view about me is my illness. The same is true often when I speak about my sexual orientation. And generational mindsets matter. I was once in a psychiatric ward with an elderly man who refused to admit the nature or existence of his malady.

Let me paste in an anonymous conversation I had over e-mail earlier this week.

I am afraid that anything I write will upset you and truly I don't want to do that, but it is an upsetting situation, of course. Do you have good medical advice? I do think you have very wide mood swings that cause some of the problem.

While I appreciate the Friend's concern, if this is the bellwether of larger trends, I have a lot of work to do in my new Meeting home. I am in wait and see mode, which is probably the best thing to do before rising to stand and expressing a desire to get more involved.

Here, I respond to his reply.

It is interesting that you immediately noted that you were concerned for my mental health. Anyone who gets to know me truly as I am will find it to be a very small part of my life. I have been struck by how wrongly people have taken me, as though many years were only a few. I've written about bipolar disorder to reduce the stigma, not to be treated with condescension or further misunderstood.

If people truly took the time to get to know me (or, for that matter, others), this would have been entirely unnecessary. That's the sad thing. I see a lot of people who are afraid of being vulnerable, when being vulnerable is the only way to reach greater growth. And I guess that's why they want to hang a label around my neck.

My mother has also told me to keep my bipolar disorder a secret. I've proposed a compromise. For people 45 and over, I'll stay silent. But for those younger, I'll talk about my illness openly. Still, there is a need to reduce the stigma of mental illness in houses of worship, to speak to the vast amount of misinformation I mention above in the fragment of conversation I shared. My mother has also told me to keep my bipolar disorder a secret. In my lawyer's parlance, I should have kept my big mouth shut. So I've proposed a compromise. For people 45 and over, I'll stay silent.

But for those younger, I'll talk about my illness openly. Still, there is a need to reduce the stigma of mental illness in houses of worship, to speak to the tremendous amount of incorrect information I mentioned above in the fragment of conversation I shared. Even if we don't talk about it in older adults, it still exists.

I'm not sure why people are afraid of it. Do they fear they might develop it somehow? Do they lack the particulars and fear what they don't understand? Do they envision a schizophrenic at the bus stop talking to himself? It could be all of these and more, but for me it's what I call a life. My best friend growing up had an alcoholic father, and I grew up knowing the particulars, the behaviors. I am no longer uncomfortable in the company of those with alcohol and substance abuse problems.

I recognize many don't have those sorts of life experiences. Many more lived in WASPy families where problems were not dealt with directly, submerged instead with distraction. My father had a background in counseling, and we confronted everything directly. I happen to believe that this is the best possible way of dealing with problems, but others do not. My parents knew the signs of bipolar disorder and did not run from them. And it is their proactive approach that kept me alive.

I am thankful that they sprang into action and were willing to do whatever it took to make me well. I will be forever grateful. A less proactive family might well have contributed to my death and I say that with truthfulness. They intervened directly and I am still here as a result of their hard work.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Final Curtain

And in the end, the odds were too long. It didn't make sense to continue to litigate, to sink thousands of dollars of borrowed money into a court case where I had equal odds of either winning or losing. The argument I made is that the Meeting itself is so prone to schism and hostility that a trial would destroy it. They didn't see it that way because they chose not to see it. But it would have caused massive fissures though I know not everyone there is beholden to wrong behavior.

And if I had been a more vindictive person, I could have produced that effect. Everyone kept daring me to sue, foolishly not realizing what they would create. Who knows what I have left behind in my wake. Hurt feelings, probably, and resentment as well. A Meeting member told me that certain people were very hurt, and if that speaks for the Meeting as a whole, I have accomplished my intentions.

By this I don't mean that intended to hurt anyone, but rather to teach lessons and hard truths. Some people go immediately for the money. This was never my aim. If I could have settled this for some honest discussion and a vow on their part to do better, that would have been sufficient with me. As I wrote earlier, I really wasn't after any kind of monetary compensation, but the system focuses on money as a unit of bargaining.

The charges (and I write this with no small discomfort) about women being afraid of me do not sit well. Five years ago, I went through an stressful episode where I very badly overshared and opened up to everyone. One of my closest F/friends is a woman about my age who, when I told her about these allegations, said that I had a tendency to be very needy in my daily dealings with her. It never bothered her and she was glad to retain our friendship, but it made me think. Not everyone acts with such generosity.

A calmly mediated talk between all parties would have been the best solution. But they never did it that way.

What I did was certainly not criminal, but the Meeting treated it as such. I was supposed to cc a particular committee handling the affair any time I contacted someone new. This was a ridiculous request and was, in part, why I sued in the first part. But as I've had space and distance from this former Meeting, I've realized that the stress and tension had re-traumatized me. I'm already vulnerable and they weren't smart enough to see that a toxic atmosphere like this was traumatizing everyone, regardless of past experience. And this happened by refusing mete out discipline to anyone.

I was singled out for calling out the problems and not letting them be brushed under the rug. But it took them five years to reach that point. This is symptomatic of their Meeting and it is no longer my problem. But in the meantime, changing the mind of people who don't want to change is an impossible matter. But walking away from the table is often the smartest thing a person can do.

Saturday Video on Friday Afternoon

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way

Yes, it was my way