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Riptide

September, 2001

Sitting in what we often call "business meeting" but what is really "Meeting for Worship to Consider Business" last week I sensed the presence of generations of Friends there with us. After the tragedy of the week before, we wrestled with what felt like an assured slide toward war and violence and I sensed the strength of Friends' testimonies and witness among us. Those testimonies woven together allow our witness to the world to be clear and coherent. I left with a sense of grace. It was a good feeling, especially so as much of my thought and prayer since my return to Vermont was heavy were focused on the antithesis of grace and clarity. I have been thinking a great deal about evil in the world for the past six weeks.

I've always had good luck working effectively with kids who have experienced tragedy and great sadness, abuse and neglect; I've always been able to find a spot where I could maintain empathy but have the attitude of "that was then and this was now." With that combination of affinity and the pragmatic, I've been able to teach--knowledge or skill or behavior--that does, I believe, help in moving forward in life. That balance has been hard to find since I've been back. I've been stuck in the pain these kids and young adults have lived through. I look at one young man and I can only see the little boy that went to school telling people that his mother was dead. She was. No one bothered to check. Day after day for more than a week he went home to his mother's corpse. Why? I'm sure there were any numbers of reasons, all of them defensible, none of them good. I am struck that that kind of lack of action was evil. Evil is alive in the world, it is true. But after some weeks of prayer and speculation, I began to find acceptance if not understanding. I am drawn to a truth I can understand, I can act on. It's not new and I am not especially clever for arriving there. By doing what good works I am handed I both show my faith and stand for good (James 3:13).

Just as nubs of understanding began to grow I joined everyone faced with the leviathan evil of airplanes full of guiltless people slamming into buildings full of blameless people. All my pondering about the place of passive evil has had to fit into the framework of that active evil. Not that this evil is new--the Irish, the Palestine have lived with this terror for generations. But, like my challenge of working with kids when I know their history, I am suddenly aware in a way that hasn't happened before. There is evil in the world, although Friends like myself often don't use such language--two kinds of evil, active and passive-- committed by people but perhaps not of them. Wheelbarrows full of sad, buckets of regret and tubs of "what ifs" result from both kinds. And I, as a Friend--as a child of God--at some level must respond to evil when I come face to face with it with good and right.

Early in his journal, George Fox describes a vision. With an piercing awareness of the evil in the world his vision broadens, "I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness." It is a metaphor with power beyond language, a compelling vision of the long view. It accentuates Friends' understanding of the certainty of victory of love and light. But surely, these two oceans meet in a tumultuous place of powerful, unavoidable, cross currents and undertows. Most Friends are conducting their lives in this turbulent place, trying in large and small ways to answer God's call and to be faithful to the Truth as it is revealed. Each day is full of great challenge and great joy. Friends, particularly myself, quickly overlook the ocean of darkness, or perhaps think of it as an abstraction. I've been a little bewildered while my thoughts have fairly often been turning to the role of evil.

This I've come to understand: evil is not abstract, it is real. It can be seen and it can be felt. There is passive evil, the evil of not picking up the phone and saying "Hank is saying this unusual thing, so I thought I'd call," and there is active evil of an airplane slamming into a building. Evil acts sow the seeds of darkness. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed like I'm standing with this small candle in the dark windy night. But I know I am not standing alone. I am joined by others with their candles. And if in the windy night mine is blown out, if I falter or feel defeated, I know where to go to relight mine.

I am convinced that being faithful requires me to stand in Truth as I am given it regardless of the consequences and, if I am not always comfortable with standing outside the circle of American culture, I have some practice at it. Still, I am challenged. I am challenged to be both open and honest while being non-judgmental to those whose attitude becomes demeaning and patronizing when I tell them I am a religious pacifist, the descriptor I've given myself in recent years. I am challenged when I am called a coward or stupid or self serving. I am challenged by contact with the culture at times like this. I am challenged perhaps, but I feel stalwart. I may sometimes falter, but I will return to embrace that "ocean of light and love."

I will share Fox's vision. I will proclaim the goodness of the Divine. I will speak of the necessity of reconciliation, the importance of peace. I will do what is right, because it is right, because it is what I must do to be faithful. And, hopefully, I will join with Fox who at the end of the description of his vision says, "And in that ... I saw the infinite love of God...."


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