November 30, 2010

God's manna

This past First Day found me in a very dark time... one of those moods where no spiritual Light could come in; where bad thoughts bred worse thoughts, and where neutral words of greeting from fFriends easily were twisted into evidence of self-worthlessness.

But as on most First Days when I'm in town, I had the opportunity to attend two Meetings for Worship. Even though something within me wanted to keep me home, I heeded the Something Deeper that told me to go and wait on the Lord in worship.

In the morning at the local monthly meeting, there were messages about joy in the midst of strife, and how to acknowledge the strife without minimizing it or becoming depressed because of it. In the afternoon at the worship group, I sank a bit further into the Seed and found myself reflecting on a number of topics:

  • What am I seeking right now?
  • If I find what I'm seeking, how will I be changed?
  • Remember to give up the difficulty to God so that God may see it through.
  • What do I need in order to be sustained?
The last question held my attention, and I thought about my ankle.

About five years ago, I started limping because of pain in my right ankle. I went to the doctor, who happened to have a background in sports medicine. All of my best medical treatment for any part of my body that was ailing me was provided by physicians who had a background in sports medicine, and this doctor didn't disappoint!

After a series of short, low-tech muscle tests in the exam room ("Hold your leg up while I push down on it, and resist me"), I was told I have very weak muscles in my hips. Either my hips weren't strong enough to keep my ankles (and presumably knees) in alignment, or vice versa. Whatever it was, after a few weeks of physical therapy and regularly doing key exercises that focused on my ankles, my hips, and my core, my limping was practically gone.

It's four or five years later, and I'm keeping up with my workout routine. Some of the exercises haven't changed, like the calf raises; other exercises have been made a bit more complicated, like crunches that are done on the large stability ball. The net result is that I've been able to maintain my improved ankle, hip, and core strength. And I've also taken more responsibility for exercising on my own, working without a trainer at least once a week.

Last Sunday, in worship, I was thinking of how working one muscle group sustains the alignment in another muscle group, sometimes a half- or whole body away. Working on my core muscles helps my hip alignment; my hip alignment helps my knees; my knees work in coordination with my ankles.

I began thinking of how working one spiritual muscle sustains the alignment in another set of spiritual muscles, seemingly disconnected. My being away from worship for nearly two weeks while I was traveling took me away from my social time with fFriends who knew something of my ongoing journey. It seemed like in turn, being away from fFriends distanced me from the ability to see how Spirit was moving among us as a group, or even among any one of us as an individual.

Not seeing or hearing stories of how the Spirit was moving left a hole in my psyche that I wasn't conscious of, as the road trip and visits among non-Quaker friends continued. By the time I returned to my home, I was feeling the darkness of dejection start to creep in, and I didn't have a plan to interrupt its intrusion.

So it came.

And in worship in the afternoon this past First Day, I was wondering what I was seeking, what I might find, and how one part of my body was supporting and sustaining the health of another part of my body. Might there be a parallel, between how one part of my spiritual life might support and sustain other parts of my spiritual life...?

Worship broke, and a Friend shared the passage from Scripture that he had been reflecting on Luke 11:9-10:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (NIV)
Another Friend reflected on how she relies on God's grace to fall upon her whenever she needs it. A third Friend shared a bit of God's humor as he reconnected with the Spirit during worship.

Listening to these stories began to draw me in, to help me feel reconnected. And the commonality between my inward experience and some of the reflections of my fellow worshipers wasn't lost on me.

We were sustaining one another by sharing our experience of the Presence and of worship as a gathered body. We were able to see and hear and sense how the Spirit was working to bind us together--to one another as well as to God. Frequently, when we've taken the time to share like this out of the silence after worship, we hear similar threads in our experience. It's like we are gathering evidence that Something Happens inwardly and collectively that binds us together in our expectant waiting.

When I spoke after worship of the dark time I had been experiencing, I also acknowledged that that little bit of sharing was already bringing to me a bit of sustenance. Like God's manna, dropped by God's grace to the people traveling in the wilderness, searching for home...


November 7, 2010

Peter and twenty-seven dollars

This particular night, not too long ago, I had plans to attend the yearly meeting's executive committee session since it's taking place in town. I wanted to provide spiritual support to the clerk, and to catch up with a few Friends who I had missed over the summer.

Yeap, those were my plans alright. But God needed me for other things that night.

When I arrived at the meetinghouse ahead of most of the committee's members, I saw Barbara, the Friend in Residence, sitting in the library with a man who I didn't know. He clearly wasn't dressed for the chilly November weather.

I introduced myself and started to hear Peter's story: lost his wife two years ago; lost his son last year to gang violence; out of work; holding onto his faith in God, even though he's been religion hopping; maybe Quakerism could be for him.

At different times, either Barbara or I would interrupt Peter to find out what he wanted or needed just then, but we also worked in tandem to provide an unspoken form of spiritual hospitality to him. At one point, I offered that we settle into a few minutes of Quaker worship--he wanted to know more about what we were like, so why not show him and include him?

Barbara and I used that worship, too, to consider Peter's very specific request: that he be given some paid work that night so he could pay to stay for a few days at something akin to a short-term, low-rent facility that also provides meals.

Peter wanted to maintain his dignity by doing paid work, and he refused any sort of handout.

"How much money would you need for where you want to stay tonight?" we asked.

    Twenty-seven dollars, he said.
"When do you have to be there?"
    Eight o'clock.
It was a few minutes past seven.

We worshiped some more.

Out of the worship, Barbara identified a task that needed to be done, and here was someone willing to do it. Maybe it was a way for all of us to save face: Peter could help with the task; we could pay him for his time and labor, light as it was; the task could be crossed off of a long to-do list for care of the meetinghouse.

While Peter was working, I went to where I had left my things, including my money clip in my coat pocket. I recalled I had a few bills left over from an event I went to the night before, for which I had to pay for parking, in cash. "Maybe somehow I can ask folks who are here for Executive Committee to chip in for Peter," I thought to myself.

While still wondering about this to myself, introductions at Executive Committee were going around, and before I could grab my coat and scoot out the door, I was asked to introduce myself. "Uh... Sure," I said, and I offered my name and where I worship.

Then I jumped in a bit deeper.

"Actually, I have to leave unexpectedly. There's a gentleman in the building, his name is Peter. He's homeless and out of work. He's looking for paid work tonight so he can rent some space and have some hot meals for the next couple of days. The Friend in Residence here has found a task or two for him to help with, and I'll be giving him a few dollars for that work. Then I'm going to drive him to where he'll stay for the weekend, so please keep Peter in your prayers a little while, and I'll keep this gathered body in mine."

I took my coat into the hallway and pulled out my money clip, wondering how on earth I'd be able to go back to the room and ask for more money to help cover what Peter needed...

I pulled out the money clip, and to my surprise was not the ten-dollar bill I thought was there the night before, but a twenty. I opened that up, and inside of the twenty was a five. I opened that up, and inside the five were, of course, two singles.

Twenty-seven dollars.

I shook my head and probably turned my gaze heavenward before I went looking for Peter and Barbara. I found Barbara first and told her we were set for the twenty-seven dollars and that I could drive Peter. Barbara ended up coming along, and we dropped Peter off at the address he had given us.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting with the yearly meeting's executive committee for their last 45 minutes of business that night.

During the closing worship, I stood. "I want to close the loop on what ended up happening with our friend Peter..." Their reaction to when I got to the part about the contents of the money clip were similar to my own: some gasps, some chuckles, some headnods.

I closed my sharing with this awareness:
    "The more I give up the privilege I have," I said, "the more Light I am given."
I later understood that the more privilege I give up, the more opportunities I'm given to give up even more privilege.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .


The morning after all this happened, I woke up and found myself thinking about the story of the woman (or man) walking along the beach and throwing stranded starfish, one by one, back into the water.*

A seemingly useless task, since the beach was covered with starfish, and each subsequent high tide would leave so many more starfish stranded all over again. But when asked by a passerby what difference it makes, in the long run, to toss the starfish back to the ocean, the starfish thrower simply picks one up, tosses it into the sea, and replies, "Made a difference to that one."

But my mind was blending the starfish story with the babies-in-the-river story: So many of us are focusing on helping the down-on-their-luck individuals who we meet by giving them a dollar, a hot meal, a few extra bits of winter clothing. We seldom stop to think that maybe, in addition to that work, we should work to change the system that puts so many people--and especially people of color--"out on the street" to begin with.

In the case of the "babies in the river" story, we need to go upriver to see who is throwing the babies into the river, and intervene there, at that stage, which in turn will eliminate the need to pull out the babies downstream, since the babies won't be thrown into the river anymore.

Sometimes, tossing a starfish into the sea, or giving a man twenty-seven dollars while he is down on his luck, is enough. But more often, there is a larger system that is in play, and sometimes that system is exploiting or institutionalizing racism, xenophobia, sexism, and more.


*This and similar versions of this story are shortened, popularized versions of the Loren Eiseley essay Star Thrower.

November 4, 2010

Grappling with questions

I've been grappling with a few questions in recent weeks:

1. How can I get a grasp of whether or not Friends believe they know "enough" about Quakerism, and how do I do that so I come across as curious rather than judgmental?

2. How can I get a grasp of the needs and "readiness" Friends have to explore Quakerism more than they maybe did through a Quakerism 101? ...and how do I do so in such a way that Friends connect with my curiosity and not with my judgment (though I do have both, y'know)?

3. How can I get a grasp of how interested Friends are in attending workshops that would be presented by a Quaker not only from out of state but also from out of the yearly meeting territory?

4. What is it, really, that the local Quaker community is ready for and interested in about Quakerism?

5. Is it really true, as one distant Quaker has told me, that it's fairly typical that most Friends don't participate in other Quaker activities in their area, that they keep close to themselves and to their meetings? If it IS true, WHY is it true (other than, "People are busy; people are tired; people are overcommitted"), and how do we work to overcome that sort of isolation-insularization?

I've drafted an online survey I'm thinking of distributing to my local community. I could send the link to you if you're interested. It doesn't feel quite right, yet, to send it out to local Friends, so if you AREN'T part of my Quaker community (as in, you don't typically worship where I worship on First Day) and want to look at it, let me know.

You can leave me a note in the comment section, or send me an email at lizopp AT gmail DOT com. Many thanks.


October 23, 2010

Guest piece by Marshall Massey: Why we practice corporate discernment

    Marshall sent me an email in response to my previous post, concerned that it would detract from the topic I was lifting up at the time. He has given me permission to share his comments about "the pattern of early Friends" around the use of corporate discernment. 
    What I appreciate about Marshall's remarks, once again, is the interweaving he provides between Quakerism's historical figures, our faith tradition's spiritual discipline, and Biblical references that relate to and undergird our practice. --Liz 
    P.S. Emphasis in the text below is Marshall's. At times I have added links and an occasional paragraph break or blockquote.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hi, Liz!

This is in response to your blog posting of October 11...

I cannot agree with Arthur Larrabee’s take on why Friends engage in corporate discernment. We don’t do it because it nurtures community. We do it, alas, simply because we are following the pattern of early Friends. And then some of us come up with rationalizations for why Friends follow that pattern, as Art Larrabee has done. But such rationalizations are simply guesses, no more.

So why did early Friends actually engage in corporate discernment? They didn’t do it to build community. They already had community, without seeking it, amongst themselves. Their reasons for engaging in corporate discernment were quite different.

Early Friends understood that God does not just address and teach individuals as individuals: God also addresses and teaches His people as a people. "Christ has come to teach his people himself," as George Fox put it. “God has given greater judgment to his church than the individual members of it,” wrote William Penn.

The Bible, indeed, gives illustrations of God instructing a group as a group, as for instance the story of Susanna (Daniel 13, which is omitted from Protestant Bibles), and also the story of the apostolic council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29). The latter story provided the specific model that Friends followed in structuring their meetings for business. (Cf. Robert Barclay, The Anarchy of the Ranters, §VI.)

Early Friends actually had a fairly clear sense of the reasons why God might prefer to instruct His people as a people, rather than as individuals. It was clear that His people had to make policy decisions somehow, and it was quite clear to them that God did not want any single human being making these decisions for them all, in the fashion of the Pope or the King, because it was evident that such an autocratic approach led more or less inevitably to the corruption of the Church, and indeed had done so ever since the time of King David. Thus William Dewsbury pointed out, “There should not be a man in Israel to rule one over another, but ... the rule and authority of man should be overturned, & Christ alone rule in the hearts and spirits of his people.” Corporate decision-making removes the rule of any single man, and replaces it with the rule of Christ speaking in the hearts of all.

In one general letter, James Nayler advised Friends to “meet often together and wait upon God for his teaching ... in a cross to your own wills, for therein is the secrets of God revealed.” Corporate discernment provides better discernment in the long run, because it crucifies the wayward will of the individual — whether that individual is a leader or a follower.
    “All Friends, submit yourselves one to another, in the fear of God,”
wrote George Fox in one letter, and in another one he elaborated,
    “let nothing be done with strife, but in love, to the glory of God, in the name of God, and in his power; so that you may all see and feel Christ among you, ordering you all to his glory with his wisdom, which is pure, peaceable, and easy to be entreated; so that none may be burdened nor oppressed in your meetings.”
Corporate discernment involves practice in submission to one another — mutual servanthood, such as Christ taught at the Last Supper (John 13:3-17) — and practice, too, in dwelling together in the state of reconciliation that is Christ himself. Corporate discernment is transformative in necessary ways.

All this, however, does not mean that early Friends wanted the prophetic leadings of individuals squelched, as so often happened in Friends communities in subsequent generations, including our own. They were constantly repeating the apostle Paul’s adjuration that congregations must “quench not the spirit” where it arises. Fox said it forcefully in a letter of 1656, titled To Friends, about Christ having the best room:
    “Quench not the Spirit nor despise prophecy where it moves.... You that stop it yourselves do not quench it in others.... The sighs and groans of the poor, judge not that ... lest you judge prayer. ... Every one exercise this gift and every one speak as the Spirit gives them utterance. And Friends be careful how that you do set your feet among the tender plants that is springing up out of God's earth lest you do hurt them and tread upon them and bruise them or crush them in God's vineyard.”
In another letter Fox went further and advised, “Be one with the witness of God in all, and look at that....” Or in other words, Practice feeling what the witness feels, and seeing through her or his eyes. William Dewsbury wrote in a similar spirit, “Dear people of God, be tender over the least breathings of God's Spirit in one another.” Be tender. In other words, Be sensitive to what is being said.

So what is involved in this practice is something quite different from community-building. It is a particular way of connecting to God, and being changed thereby, that the rest of the world does not know. If we lose that way, and come to treat it as community-building, then we have lost an essential part of what makes us Friends.

All the best,

October 11, 2010

The weightiness of prophetic ministry

While reading an essay by Thomas Gates about covenant community and deepening the life of our meetings, I found myself deeply reflecting on two pairs of elements of our meetings that are in creative tension with each other:

    the individual worshiper vis a vis the community as a whole 
    the community as a whole vis a vis God's leadings and instruction for us.
My reflections deepened while I was considering Tom Gates' paraphrase of something that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friend Arthur Larabee said.*

Here's what Tom writes:
I keep going back to Arthur Larabee's question about business meeting: "Why is it that we persist in deciding things in this way?" His answer: not because it is quick or easy or efficient (it is not), but rather because we have found that over the long run, this way of deciding builds and nurtures community. In other words, the point of our business process is not to make decisions, but to build community.
Granted, the context of the essay itself is about addressing conflict among Friends while placing conflict squarely in the wider context of covenant community. And this paraphrase of Arthur's words points to the Quaker practice of giving greater weight to the sense of the meeting rather than to the sense of an individual within the meeting.

Most of the time, I'm down with that; I unite with that.

But . . .

What happens when we "persist in deciding things in this way" to the detriment of the bringing about the kin(g)dom of God? What if we give so much weight to the role of the community and to testing the sense of the meeting that we fail to recognize prophetic ministry that has risen from among us?

What if we allow the sense of the meeting--for the noble purpose of "building and nurturing community"--to outweigh God's Divine Instruction itself?

This is a question that has been looming in my peripheral consciousness as I'm nearing the end of reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The authors of this massive 2009 book offer example after example of how an individual Friend felt convicted by the Spirit to take action against some form of social injustice--from the earliest enslavement in the late 1600s to the modern race-based and class-based oppression of the American Quaker educational system--how these few persistent and faithful Friends labored with their monthly meetings and their yearly meetings so that they might heed God's Instruction to them...

And time and time again, the weight of the sense of the meeting--not the weight of the individual's prophetic ministry--slowed or prevented the social change that was striving to emerge.

I would say this:

1. Certainly there are times when the need to go more slowly is crucial, to bring the meeting community under the weight of a concern, with hearts and minds clear. But can we not also release the Friend with such a call to do as God bids her or him? Can a letter of introduction or a travel minute from the meeting indicate the labor that the meeting is involved in around the topic, rather than shut the Friend down and close our hearts and ears to that Friend's ministry?

    1a. Before anyone jumps down my throat about corporate discernment: of course I acknowledge and recognize the importance of corporate decision-making among Friends! What I am wrestling with and asking questions about has to do with the balance, or the tipping point, between the place of corporate discernment and the place of what may well be prophetic ministry--especially when we, the comfortable, are afflicted by the message a Friend brings us.

2. Too often, our collective privilege gets in the way of our willingness to hear, embrace, and live into true prophetic ministry. As a U.S. faith community, Quakers are predominantly comprised of worshipers of European descent who are also mostly middle-class or wealthier/highly educated. It's hard for those of us with privilege to give up some of our privilege, yet that is what being faithful servants of the Spirit often must do.
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." --Matthew 19:21-24 (NIV)
3. I need the support of my community--my Quaker covenant community--to help me loosen my death-grip on my privilege; to help me see how I act, think, and speak out of a place of privilege; to help me work for the betterment of the wider community around me and not equate my service to God exclusively with the building up and nurturing of my own Quaker meeting.


*For those readers who don't know Arthur, he's frequently recognized as the "go-to guy" when it comes to clerking and navigating Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business. I personally believe there are other "go-to" people, but they are doing quieter, less visible work.

September 28, 2010

Dangers of today's implicit Quakerism

This post is an extension of a comment I left on my previous post. My apologies for bouncing readers around...
The discussion around Martin K's low-tech outreach program--invite a newcomer to lunch--has a few of us sharing our own experience of being newcomers at one point and having received that sort of invitation to linger, to join a group for lunch on First Day, to learn more about Quakerism by way of simple gestures of fellowship.

It's easy these days for any of us as individuals to bow out of such opportunities, though, for First Day fellowship because of our responsibilities to children, to partners, to preparation for the upcoming week's grind...

But we are missing the role of the larger community--the Quaker worship community--when we consider ourselves as individuals, disconnected from the larger group:

A healthy, vibrant meeting will have a critical mass of Friends who are available to do the work that not every individual can. It's that critical mass--made up of individual Friends, but with a shared understanding of the whole--that can regularly provide outreach and opportunities to talk about Quakerism with others.

It's that same sort of critical mass that recognizes and acts upon the need for Friends to attend Quaker weddings and memorials that are taken under the care of the meeting, something I have written about previously.

When we as a community stop talking openly among ourselves about the responsibilities of membership (or of long-term attendance-ship!), then those responsibilities become implicit and invisible--which used to be okay when we would spend oodles of time with one another during the rest of the week.

It used to be okay because during our time together away from Meeting, we'd learn that Friends would be making plans to go to committee meetings, or to attend Meeting for Worship for Business, or to check in on a Friend who was going through a particularly painful time, etc etc. We saw and heard about the interweaving of Quakerism through the fabric of the lives of those around us.

But when we see each other and interact with each other only (primarily) on First Days, we lose our direct exposure to how Quakerism impacts our day-to-day lives: how we might pull out the Scriptures to remind ourselves of a story that can help us through difficulty; how we might call on one another to discern this-or-that; how we might quiet ourselves to settle into worship during a spiritually dark time so that the Light may reveal something to us that we need to know and we may submit to it, letting mercy come in...

Our isolated, individualized brand of Quakerism is likely in stark contrast to the religion of our youth--for those of us who grew up in a religious household. That "earlier religion" was probably made explicit to us in all sorts of ways, perhaps many of them as empty forms: references to certain members of the clergy; traditions, ceremonies, and meals that followed a certain calendar of holidays; prayers that were recited on specific occasions; and lessons that were taught so we'd understand the history, struggle, accomplishments, and teachings of our particular faith.

But today, the implicit nature of today's Quakerism is not one that will allow our faith tradition to be passed onto future generations, because we have confused an embodied or "implicit Quakerism" with not knowing how to talk about our faith--or not being willing to do so, out of fear that others will be turned off by our forthrightness.

An active, receptive, participatory silence is expected during our unprogrammed periods of worship. But we fail our Quaker ancestors and our Quaker tradition when we remain silent about our faith away from our meetingroom's doors.


September 26, 2010

Invite a visitor to lunch (a la Martin Kelley)

The other day, I started catching up on some overdue Quaker blog reading, and I came across Martin's post on The Biggest Most Vibranty Most Outreachiest Program Ever. Like other readers, I chuckled as I read how EXTREME a program like his could be.

I wanted to comment, to share a bit of my own story with this sort of OUTRAGEOUS approach to outreach, except at the time, there was a message that said "Comments are closed." What better way is there to get me into a blogging mode, than to realize I can't post a comment on someone else's blog?!

(Comments appear to be open now, by the way. But this is too good of an opportunity for me to pass up.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I was exposed to Quaker worship while I was at a private college whose origins have its roots in Quakerism. A handful of students would attend worship on First Days, but if someone from the nearby Meeting invited us students to lunch, I don't recall taking the Friend up on the offer.

Years later, I would find myself among Milwaukee Friends in Wisconsin. Theirs is a warm, friendly environment, with one greeter in particular who often hugs the long-time worshipers as they arrive on First Day. (She appropriately offers a handshake if you are unknown to her!)

After worshiping a couple of years there, I attended my first FGC Gathering, where I was struck by the number of people who invited one another to go to lunch together, following the morning activities.

The first First Day immediately after I got back from the Gathering, I rose my hand during announcements and said something like, "I got so used to going to lunch with Friends while I was away, I want to ask others here to go to lunch with me after worship, if anyone's interested."

I think three or four worshipers approached me afterward... and we ended up going to lunch weekly after that, with others joining us occasionally, for at least a couple years!

Later, that practice of inviting someone to lunch morphed into my asking an older, experienced Friend to provide me with eldership--which we did, of course, over lunch each month.

Now it's even years after that: When Laughing Waters Friends Worship Group happens to have a visitor, we always have some fellowship afterward--and we have at least one Friend who has a gift for inviting visitors and newcomers into the conversation. Plus, when we have a potluck, we welcome visitors and newcomers to join us for that, even if the meal is small. When we have a planned guest or speaker, we typically have a potluck at that time, too.

But Martin in his post goes beyond the action of inviting a person to lunch. The next step involves the preparedness and the willingness to talk about Quakerism, to explain our peculiar faith tradition, to connect our activities with our beliefs and vice versa. Again, the worship group is blessed to have a few experienced Friends who can move us from introductions to answering questions about Quakerism and then back to more casual conversation.

If we skip that step--asking the visitor, "Do you have any questions about Quakerism?" or "What was your experience like during worship?" or even "What did you know about Quakerism before you came here?--we risk perpetuating the perception that Quaker meetings are really more like a social club where we don't talk about God in our lives, a perception which in turn can be carried by visitors into meetings for worship.

These days, especially when I attend the larger worship at the monthly meeting on First Days, I've noticed in myself a growing willingness to introduce myself to someone I don't know when worship breaks. After all, we're shaking hands anyway, so why not just add a quick, "G'morning. I'm Liz; nice to meet you"? So far, folks have been willing to tell me their name in return.

From there, it's just a short reach to add an additional ten words or so that Martin suggests:

Would you like to join me for a bite afterward?


September 16, 2010

An open letter to George W. Bush

16 September 2010

George W. Bush
Office of George W. Bush
P.O. Box 259000
Dallas, TX 75225-9000

Dear George Bush:

Ramadan is over; Eid has brought countless numbers of American Muslims together this month, and I have been wondering why no one in the United States has heard your voice to calm the recent hysteria that so many politicians and even members of the clergy have been demonstrating toward American Muslims and toward their faith.

Yours was the voice of calm, respect, and Christian love in the days that followed those horrific attacks on September 11, 2001:

    The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam... 
    I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. 
    The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.  
I respectfully say to you, Friend, that your silence during this time of grave misperception, harmful stereotyping, and fear-based rhetoric is like the Santa Ana wind: it cannot be seen, but when there is fire, that which cannot be seen adds to the enormity of the destruction and ruin of American lives.

As a Quaker, I am reminded that my faith’s practice of silent, open worship cannot take the place of speaking out, of showing up, of offering myself as a grounded presence in times of wrongful action and hate-filled speech.

I pray that the Loving Presence stirs thy heart and lifts thy spirit so that thee may remember our Muslim brothers and sisters in this country and around the world; that thee may remind our wider American family that American Muslims are Americans; that Islam is a way to peace.

Thy shoulders may well carry a burden specific unto thee, thy voice a message to speak unto a nation that is in distress. Do not bury thy talent and believe it is being well-used.

September 7, 2010

Taking responsibility for learning about Islam

Recent sobering news about how one house of worship in Florida wants to "acknowledge" the events of 9-11 has gotten me to start thinking about what I can do, as one person.

At least for the remainder of September, each day I am going to read a passage from the Qur'an. (I've changed my homepage on my computer to this link as a commitment to doing so.)

I got to thinking about this after I learned from Robin M. that San Francisco Meeting will be talking with some of their young Friends about recent developments around the proposed Islamic Center in New York and historical examples of religious persecution. Sounds like a good way to teach and learn about tolerance.

I also find myself wondering: If we can take the time to talk with our children and youngest Friends about Islam and the religious persecution that Muslims in America are currently facing, maybe I can start educating myself too.

Perhaps others will join me.


September 1, 2010

Silence on a stick?!

Here where I am, the end of the summer is marked by what is called the Great Minnesota Get-Together: the Minnesota State Fair.

One theme for the food that is sold at the fair is "food-on-a-stick": fried Twinkies, chocolate-dipped cheesecake, and caramelized bacon--on a stick.

The other day while hanging out with some Quaker friends, one of them suggested we could have a Quaker booth at the fair next year and sell Silence-on-a-Stick.

The idea got some laughs, but in light of what is happening with the increase in "Islamophobia" in the U.S., I was struck by our initial corporate Quaker silence across the country. When I started this post a few days ago, I took heart at what rabbinic student Rachel Barenblat wrote shortly after a drunk man urinated on the rugs of a New York mosque. I left the following comment:

...Not only did I post the link on my Facebook page but I also called my local TV station and referred them to your blog, asking that some air time be dedicated to the GOOD THINGS that Americans can do for one another.

One downside to the portion of Quakers that has no formally recognized clergy is that we sometimes lack the leadership such as what you and apparently Stu provided in this instance: in a moment of inspiration, to act and not just pray.
While I search my own heart for how I might be led in these horrifying times, I also ask that others point me to positive responses and goodwill outreach that is taking place.

What are the Quakers in your corner of the world doing to refute the blame and the hate that is going on?

What does our faith call us to do, in addition to pray?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

I'm grateful to see messages now put out by New York Yearly Meeting in collaboration with AFSC, as well as a statement from Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Some highlights from these statements:

    We dare to imagine the site of the World TradeTowers surrounded by the evidence of our nation’s commitment to religious freedom, and our nation’s pluralism. We welcome it alongside current mosques and other houses of worship, and other interfaith and community centers near the site and throughout our city.
    To counter the distrust and misinformation, more people need to state publicly that they support the freedom of American Muslims to worship and to gather together.
But I also return to this haunting piece, which could just as easily begin with "First they came for the Muslims..."
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
What do these melancholic words impel us to do, at the very least...?


August 25, 2010

Why I am still a Quaker

a. Why are you a Quaker?
b. How are you a Quaker?
c. Please give an example of how a Meeting for Worship is conducted in your tradition.

These are three questions that a friend of Wess' asks and for which she seeks answers from a wide variety of Quakers. My answers are below, and I acknowledge that I skimmed a few earlier posts I've written, believing I had covered some of these topics... and curious to know what, if anything, still holds true.

a. Why am I a Quaker?

When I am asked to consider this question, I often think of when I was in elementary school, and some classmates of mine would ask me things like, "Be honest! Do you like my new dress?" ...or "Tell me the truth: Am I your best friend?"

I don't know why, but I was never taught to tell even a white lie, so when I discovered a people of faith who--as human and as flawed as we all are--do their best to be honest in all their affairs, well, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only person in the whole world who believed it was more important to be honest than it was to be liked.

There are other reasons why I'm a Quaker, like this one:

    Doing something that feels right, even if no one else around me is doing it, is more important to me than doing what my peers--or my mother!--want me to do.  
    I yearn to be faithful to the leadings I am given.
Or this one:
    I believe that all of us have more potential and magnificence in ourselves than we ourselves believe. We just don't always know how to help one another get there. A lot of times, only God can do that.  
    We can help one another live up to our measure of the Light. And if we can't, then the Light itself can.
But perhaps a more important question for long-time Friends to answer with one another is this:

Even after a number of painful experiences and disillusionments, why am I still a Quaker?

After each painful experience, I certainly reassess if I am to remain among Friends or not! But I believe I have remained among Friends because I have reached outside of my monthly meeting when I have been hurt or disillusioned by something that's happened--I've reached out to other Quakers to hear me out, give me counsel, and hear a bit about how they themselves "came out the other side."

I'm still a Quaker simply because I have chosen to stay--to stay in worship, to stay engaged with the pain until God shows me the way through, to stay involved in the life of the meeting that exists outside of the painful incident.

And I'm still a Quaker because so much of Quakerism brings me emotional and spiritual fulfillment.

b. How are you a Quaker?

This question reminds me of the query, If you were accused of being a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

I hope my life as a Friend reflects the practice of living according to how we are led by the Spirit; that I live from a place of Love in my life, even and especially through conflict; that I fall into worship when I have large and small decisions to make; that I seek out others when I am not clear of the way forward; that I place God at the center of my days, of my worship, of my faith.

There are certain Quaker practices and traditions I engage in, like (most recently) intervisitation among Friends, along with seeking and receiving eldership from seasoned Friends.

Most important, I am a Quaker because I place myself in Quaker contexts--not exclusively, but primarily: be it with other Quakers for socialization; or reviewing Quaker writings for inspiration and guidance; or engaging in corporate worship, even on a sometimes irregular basis.

But as I read over what I've already offered, I find myself returning to this:

I am Quaker because of how I open myself to listen for and follow God's guidance. The "how" is based on 350 years of practice by my Quaker predecessors.

c. An example of how a Meeting for Worship is conducted in your tradition.

In recent years, in addition to worshiping with Liberal Friends, I have had the opportunity to worship with Conservative Friends in the U.S., mostly during their yearly meetings. As a result, I have learned to talk about how both Conservative and Liberal Friends worship in the unprogrammed tradition. I worry that there's a misconception that Conservative Friends are more fundamentalist in theology than Liberal Friends (more fundamentalist, not entirely; a bit more Christocentric, yes) and therefore there's the misconception that Conservative Friends have programmed or highly structured worship with a pastor of some sort (they don't).

From the outside looking in, Meetings for Worship have looked the same in these two U.S. branches* of Friends: people gather in a meetingroom that has chairs roughly in a circle, or in concentric circles, and quietly take it upon themselves to "center down"--with no outward direction by a person or a chime.

"Centering down" is not a phrase I often use, but what I mean by it is that the worshipers begin to get less fidgety; their mind-racing usually slows down; maybe their breathing even deepens or becomes more intentional for a time. If we could get a glimpse into the most invisible workings of these worshipers, we might understand that their hearts, souls, and minds all turn away from the rush of the outside world and turn toward the Light.

Ideally, we become entrained to one another and to the Living Presence that has been awaiting us.

Among a group of Friends who know one another very well, I have found this shared or corporate centering to be nearly palpable and somewhat invigorating, and I feel like we are all leaning forward, spiritually, as if someone is whispering something to us and we strive to hear...

And when in fact a worshiper confirms for herself or himself, in a wordless, internal discernment process, that she or he has heard God's message, that person speaks out of the silence, being mindful of staying close to the message that was given and keeping away from, as much as possible, the temptation to change the message, lest it be made "nice" if it's a challenge to the community, or lest it become needlessly "polished" if there are parts that seem uneven.

For about an hour, unless someone has specifically convened an "extended" Meeting for Worship, the worship continues in this manner, mostly worshiping in a cohesive and active silence (ie. corporate worship), with perhaps one or more spoken messages adding to the experience--that is, ideally, deepening the stillness in which we listen for the Loving Principle that many Friends call God or Christ or the Inner Light.

At the close of the hour, Friends shake hands and quietly greet one another. A number of monthly meetings then move into an added bit of time to share of their experience--either what they experienced during the worship itself, the sense of the Spirit among them; or about thoughts and reflections that emerged for them in the worship but "didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry" in their own hearts and minds. Some meetings share prayer requests during this time or share news of how the Spirit and Truth has been moving among them during the previous week. Usually then there is a time for announcements, fellowship, and maybe a bit to eat.

A final reflection

Putting words to the experience of Meeting for Worship is a difficult task, because there is a qualitative difference between the words I use (and you read) and the experience of worship itself. It's like searching for words to describe the water that one might swim in, as compared to swimming in the water itself.


*Because of my service on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, I know not to call FGC a "branch." There are FUM Friends, Conservative Friends, Liberal Friends, and even friends of Friends who participate in programs or otherwise use the services that FGC offers. But because of how FGC talks about affiliation and constituent meetings, there remains a persistent misconception that meetings in the U.S. or Canada might be "FGC meetings." Not so: Monthly meetings belong to a yearly meeting, which typically has its roots of one branch of Quakerism or another; and monthly meetings are accountable to their yearly meeting (and vice versa), not to FGC.

Ten Reasons Why I'm Quaker
I Should Have Known I Was a Quaker

August 19, 2010

Root bound?

In the room where the worship group meets, there is a single large pot with five plants that look like miniature palm trees. Sometimes they look thirsting for water, their slender leaves folded down, close to the candle-stick sized trunk.

This past First Day, I couldn't help but wonder if those five trees were root-bound, given that the pot was only about eighteen inches tall, was about a foot in diameter, and has been there, unchanged, since we started worshiping in this location, I think.

That got me thinking:

Our meetings can get root bound, can't they? ...Like when we fall into spiritual ruts of faith and practice, never seeking new opportunities to listen for God's call, or letting those new opportunities slide by, or failing to take a stand publicly for an important social-justice issue because it's too much work to organize and step out into public.

Or when our committees are root-bound, they tend to focus on whatever is on their plate in front of them and seldom take time out to consider rising concerns that might lead the committee and its members onto a new and interesting path, maybe incorporating a longer view or a way to involve more worshipers over time.

Our worship can get root bound, when we stop anticipating the Living Presence to dwell among us and we fall into our own private reveries, or when we stop sharing our experience of God in our lives and substitute such tender sharing with a litany of complaints about our worldly concerns.

Similarly, having too little soil in the pot can leave the roots overly exposed to air pockets and without enough nutrients. There is a necessary Something in the ground that surrounds the roots and fills the pot, and we must be careful to learn when the pot's soil is too dry; when it is too wet; and when the plants themselves need to be transplanted to some new pot for greater freedom for the roots to grow and for the soil's nutrients to be refreshed.

Maybe my choice a few years ago to begin worshiping with the worship group was a way to transplant myself into a pot that seemed to have more fertile soil, more nutrient-rich dirt. More than once, though, someone in worship has cautioned us to be wary of becoming "spiritually sleepy," and we have stayed open and alert for an opportunity to participate in a service project, to stretch ourselves beyond our familiar pattern of worship.

This fall, we'll be finishing a formal commitment to help a refugee Somali family resettle in the Twin Citiesl. Also we'll return to our experiment with providing some Quaker adult education for the worship group. We may also consider having a retreat since recently the worship group has added a few people who are new to Quakerism.

And always, always I'll be on the lookout for an opportunity to travel among Friends or to bring a visiting Friend to us: Such opportunities are good reminders for me that no one has to stay rooted in one place; that we often grow from being exposed to new environments and even to some cross-pollination.

We can remain grounded in our tradition, faith, and practice but that doesn't mean that we must restrict our roots from branching out...


UPDATE: While reading additional Quaker writings on the internet shortly after I posted this piece, I came across this Minute of Exercise from the 2010 annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting.

August 13, 2010

Qualities of a Quaker worship community

A short while ago while traveling in southern Oregon, I worshiped with South Mountain Friends in Ashland. A couple of us shared after worship that we each had been reflecting on Thomas Gates' pamphlet Members One of Another.

In addition to thinking on the relationship between the meeting and its members, I was thinking about those who have written about the qualities of the Inward Light, especially Samuel Caldwell.* I then found myself considering what are some of the primary qualities of a healthy and vibrant Quaker worship community, be it a monthly meeting or a worship group.

*I believe I've read at least one other Friend's remarks on the topic but can't come up with who it was or with any link...

Qualities of a Quaker worship community

  • Provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for one another. It seems like many meetings provide pastoral care pretty well: when a Friend is in crisis, our meetings rally around the person to help her or him over the hump, providing careful listening and regular support--be it financial, medical, familial, vocational. On the other hand, how regularly do we ask questions of one another about God or the Loving Principle in our lives, or how the Truth prospers, when our lives aren't in turmoil...? Must we wait for workshops or adult education sessions to learn of and share about our spiritual lives? Must spiritual nurture be limited to confidential clearness committees and ad hoc care committees?

  • Welcome the stranger as one of our own. I sometimes fantasize that as worship breaks, the Friend who closes worship rises and says, "Before we move into announcements and introductions of visitors, please look around the room and if you see someone near you who you don't know, please welcome them and introduce yourself to them..." It seems like a challenge to discipline ourselves so as not to rush across the meetingroom at the rise of meeting in order to talk to a fellow committee member, when what we could do is take the time to welcome the stranger and the visitor to meeting, asking these newcomers why they came that particular day, what their experience of worship was, and what questions they have about Quakerism.

  • Call out and provide stewardship for each other's spiritual gifts. Especially in large meetings, this task seems to have been relegated to the Nominating Committee. But what about the spiritual gifts that don't apply to "regular" committee service? What about the Friend who has a gift for providing hospitality when people come to visit in her home? or the Friend who can build an intergenerational community through storytelling and games? or the back-bencher who whispers spot-on insights to his neighbor during Meetings for Worship for Business? How do we ourselves feel when someone "finally" affirms a talent, gift, or perspective we have but feel like few others ever notice? I have had the opportunity to witness one Friend in particular who will say, "I wonder if Such-and-so Friend could help us with that particular task, since I see she (or he) has a gift for such-and-so..." It's one way the worship community becomes responsible for the nurture and stewardship of the spiritual gifts among us, since these gifts belong not to the individual but to the community.

    cf. Lloyd Lee Wilson has an excellent chapter on "Community Stewardship of our Spiritual Gifts" in his book of essays on Gospel Order.

  • Guide one another into greater faithfulness, discipline, humility, obedience, and love. In order to offer such guidance, we have to be willing to share our vulnerabilities, our leadings, our struggles, and our overall experience of the Inward Teacher more openly with one another and with the community as a whole. We learn not only by formal study and by informal discussion but also through watching how we conduct our lives both in and outside of the meetingroom. When under stress, do we take time out to pray and to seek God's guidance? During a conflict within our meeting, do we respond to others harshly or with kindness? When a particular activity goes well, are there Friends who insist on grabbing all the credit, or is there gratitude for the Spirit for having led us into such a happy opportunity?

  • Knit together the corporate body in the Spirit and sustain the corporate nature of the faith's tradition. This is perhaps the least tangible, least visible element of our worship communities. There's a wordless, visceral experience, though, when we are gathered as a corporate body, whether it be during a Meeting for Worship on the occasion of a marriage, or having a special event to celebrate all the young people in the meeting. That said, there are ways to watch and listen for the increeping of individualism in our Quaker community, such as giving weight to personal and individual preferences; the use of the phrase "I think we should..." or "I'd like to see us..."; the (unintended?) attempt to hold a meeting for worship for business hostage by saying "I'm going to stand in the way of that decision" or the more subtle "I'm not in unity with that decision so therefore we don't have sense of the meeting and can't move forward."

  • How to live into a vibrant and healthy Quaker community

    Here are a few specific steps we can take to strengthen and deepen our worship communities as Friends.

  • Study together: Scripture, Quaker writings. By studying and learning about our faith tradition together, we develop a shared language about Quakerism. We also develop a shared understanding about our earliest roots, about our growth as a "people to be gathered," and about the people and events that continue to shape who we are in modern times.

  • Worship together. During tragic events; to honor momentous occasions; during times of struggle; and out of a yearning for healing, worship is our touchstone where we come to lay aside our personal agendas and to lift up our hearts, be it in celebration or in sorrow. Contrary to what it looks like to those visitors unaccustomed to Quaker worship, we are not individuals sitting in a dead silence: we are seekers of the Truth who yearn to know God's message for us, to live out God's call in our daily lives, individually and as a body joined in the Spirit.

  • Cherish one another as family. Bitterness toward our fellow worshiper cannot easily coexist with our desire to cherish one another. We can learn to love one another without condoning irresponsible or disrespectful behavior: it is a discipline for which we need much practice--and much forgiveness when we ourselves fall short. But let us try what Love can do, regardless.

  • Provide measures of loving accountability. In a healthy, vibrant Quaker community, there is what I call an "appropriate nosiness" for us to engage in with one another. Surprisingly, setting limits and providing accountability--such as testing our leadings with one another and meeting with a care-and-accountability committee--can be a source of support and spiritual nurture. When we understand that such things are part and parcel of Quakerism's practice, we feel cared for when members of our Quaker worship community engage with us around sharing our spiritual gifts and around our steps and missteps on the way to being faithful to God's call.

  • Labor together... and stay to see the results over time. Sometimes it is easier after a hard, contentious decision has been made to leave the community altogether, especially if things did not go "our" way. As a corporate body, staying despite the pain or disillusionment allows the community to reflect on how things are going afterward, whether or not there are fruits of the Spirit, or how good or poor those fruits actually are. Plus, when we are struggling with one another, those may be the times when God breaks through and reveals a new way to move forward. Laboring together can also mean finding a service project or a hands-on activity in which to participate as a worship community. Sometimes unknown gifts are brought into the Light when we are taken out of our comfort zone and we are forced to draw on resources that we otherwise hadn't known were available to us. New voices among us might be drawn out; previously hidden skills may appear, and we learn anew who we are as a community.

  • Bear witness together. Similar to laboring with one another, bearing witness together can develop or strengthen a sense of interdependence, a reliance on one another when witnessing to Truth in public or against "the establishment" may feel risky or even dangerous. Bearing witness can also be less visible--not as confrontational--while still carrying weight because the entire worship community has agreed to take action together. When we feel responsible to a group we care for, we are likely to engage in action to which the group as a whole has committed itself.

  • Point out to one another when individualism is threatening to take hold and then re-engage our corporate practice. When our Quaker worship community and the worshipers within it are surrounded by the distractions and even lusts of the secular world, even Quakerism's corporate nature can be undermined by the wider culture that swirls around us. We need one another to remind us of our Quaker heritage, of the disciplines of corporate worship and corporate discernment, of the practice of waiting on the Lord rather than making decisions out of convenience of time or of money.

  • Speak openly of our struggles, joys, and successes in following the Inward Teacher. We grow our identity as Friends and sustain our worship communities as Quakers by telling our stories of God in our lives and by remembering the roots of where our peculiar practices, vocabulary, and witness come from. If we gather only for worship, we miss the opportunity to hear about the rest of our lives as we strive to put our faith into action.

  • Critical mass, "togetherness," and being a corporate body

    As I was finishing up my list of the qualities of a Quaker worship community, I realized I wanted to address the concept of doing things "together" as it relates to the corporate body.

    "Being a corporate body" does not mean having 100% of the body together 100% of the time, but it does mean striving to have 100% of the body engaged in the entire life of the community over time.

    By "life of the community," I mean worship; meetings for worship for business; committee service; projects involving the community; intergenerational activities; care and nurture of our youngest and of our eldest community members; and so on.

    It's unrealistic to assume that everyone within a Quaker meeting or worship group will be available to participate in a given activity on a given day. But it is realistic to assume--and I would say reasonable to expect--that over time, everyone will be able to participate in a given activity; that no one will completely and forever stay away from worship, or from meeting for worship for business, or from an opportunity to bear witness against injustice.

    The element of participating in a corporate body together is more than having critical mass for any single event. Through worship, struggle, witness, service projects, adult education, intergenerational activities, learning about Quakerism, there is a cumulative experience that occurs over time and it is the cumulative experience among Friends that both shapes and is shaped by the worshiping community and all of its participants.

    As always, thanks for reading me.



    Martin Kelley's suggestion that we invite a newcomer to lunch is the Outreachiest Program Ever

    my blog post that refers to critical mass of a Quaker meeting in light of weddings and memorials

    August 1, 2010

    2010 Iowa YM Conservative annual sessions

      How is it that I am refreshed after four days of this routine, with 12 hours of worship, neither drained nor eager to return home?
    These are the words I posted on The Good Raised Up after returning from my first visit to Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative during its annual sessions in 2005.

    This year I return from sessions--my fifth journey there--with the same sense of sweetness and fullness, though I came home a day early, missing the final business session and the closing worship on First Day.

    Unlike last year, which I missed entirely, I was able to attend most of the annual sessions for Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I was eager to get to the Scattergood campus, in part because my summer had involved travel and activities that made it hard for me to have quality continuity with Quakers. I also was looking forward to seeing a few Friends I knew who would be visiting IYMC for the first time: I think of these Friends as having a deep and alive relationship with the Inward Light, and I was looking forward to getting to know them better during the week.

    Panel on outreach for the 2011 FGC Gathering

    The evening when sessions started, we heard a few stories from five Conservative Friends who have been to FGC's Gathering. Part of the reason for having this panel is because the Gathering will be held for the first time in Iowa next year at Grinnell College.

    There are questions at FGC's end about whether Friends will be willing to travel to Iowa--after all, it's not part of the densely Friend-populated areas of the Mid-Atlantic or of New England; and it's not in a "destination" like the Pacific Northwest, when the 2006 Gathering was held in Tacoma, Washington. Another concern is whether eastern Friends even know where Iowa is--and I'm not being facetious. It wasn't until I moved to the Midwest that I began to care about knowing which Midwestern states were what and where!

    Anyway, the panel was a way to explain to IYMC Friends a bit about what the Gathering is (or isn't), as well as to hear any concerns from the body about the event coming to the region.

    I was impressed that there were two young adults and one high school student on the panel, as well as two older adults. Some had experienced the Gathering only once ("It was a really important experience for my family."), and others had attended a number of times ("I went through spiritual depths and growing; anger and exhaustion. But there's something to being among Quakers and not feeling weird about being Quaker.")

    One of the younger Friends commented on how the Gathering can help "cement" one's identity as a Quaker... which may be true for a young person, but I personally worry that the "cement" at Gathering is more often associated with being among a peer group and having fun, often with activities that aren't necessarily rooted in the practice of Quakerism, or in the growing together in the Light and in the Life of the Spirit. (Some Friends familiar with the Gathering call it a "hot house"--an artificial environment where community grows quickly but might not be able to be sustained outside of the event itself.)

    I was also struck by an insight that a particularly shy young adult Friend said:
      The Gathering is the best when you come out of your shell and put your best self into it.
    This reflects some of my own peak experiences at Gathering, when I feel I am pulled into a greater measure of the Light than I had experienced in my local worship community back home.

    The remarks that caught my attention the most, though, came from Marshall Massey, who used to write regularly for a wonderful Quaker blog and is now very active on Facebook... Marshall is knowledgeable and challenging, and sometimes I'm uncomfortable in my skin when he takes up an issue and speaks very thoroughly about it, sometimes calling on us to see the world--or Quakerism--through a new lens. I've learned to continue to listen for the Light in anything he has to offer.

    This particular night, he raised the question--and I'm paraphrasing here:
      Is FGC bringing the Gathering to IYMC as part of a "courtship dance," to build ties with us, hoping we might affiliate with FGC? As a host to the Gathering, how do we explain ourselves, how do we explain how we practice our faith, and how do we share the stories of how IYMC has shaped our lives?
    After a few other remarks from the panelists, we moved into a quieter time when those of us there could speak of our own experiences or concerns. Here are some that particularly stay with me:
    • One Friend commented with some disgust that he had once seen a sign at a Liberal Friends' event saying, "You can believe whatever you want." The Friend went on to testify that being a Quaker isn't about believing what you want. It's about living your life by following the leadings of the Spirit.
    • Another Friend spoke about the rootedness that is encountered and experienced within IYMC, and that FGC sees that IYMC has something that other Friends not only lack but also hunger for.
    • And one or two Friends spoke to the possibility that perhaps IYMC is being called to minister to the FGC Gathering in some capacity, and we may not know what that is just yet.
    It was just the first session of our five days together, and already there was a lot to think about!

    Interconnectedness between the yearly meeting and its monthly meetings

    This year as in other years, I again was struck by the nature of the relationship between the monthly meetings and the yearly meeting. (Readers from IYMC: if I misrepresent this relationship or make an error in my summary of the tasks below, please put a correction in the Comments or contact me directly at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.)

    As I understand it, several monthly meetings are responsible for the non-business sessions during annual sessions, and that responsibility rotates among all the monthly meetings, rather asking for individual volunteers to serve on a planning committee (though it may be that individuals from each of the appointed meetings comprise the committee).

    Each year a monthly meeting is identified to serve as the "Document Committee," reviews all the epistles received by the clerk of IYMC, and identifies excerpts of epistles that are to be read aloud during annual sessions. That responsibility also rotates among the meetings.

    Each meeting is to appoint one of its own members to serve on the yearly meeting's Nominating Committee--no need for a Naming Committee!--as well as the Representatives Committee, which proposes a budget and a few other things. The same process is used to identify what IYMC calls the Caretakers for the annual session: the Friends from across the yearly meeting who will help with the logistics of the annual sessions: setting up rooms, getting water to the clerks' table, making announcements, etc.

    Also, a good number of meetings--maybe all of them--have Friends who participate on the yearly meeting's Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and it appears that many meetings actually take action in response to recommendations made and issues discussed during sessions.

    Ken and Katharine Jacobson

    On the second night of sessions, Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends Ken and Katharine Jacobson spoke tenderly on the theme "The Way of Love."

    It happens that in recent years, I have been counseled and encouraged to meet these Friends, especially since they moved to southern Wisconsin a few years ago. It seems some of our concerns about Quakerism overlap, or maybe our mutual fFriends believed we would just get along so well... It so happened that last year, Way opened for a phone conversation between us, and I was eager to meet them here at annual sessions. They are warm-hearted people with a generosity of Spirit that is visible in their eyes...

    By the sound of things, Ken's engagement and study at Chicago's Theological Seminary has brought important Light to his fellow seminarians. He spoke to us of how astonished they were by the possibility that worship doesn't have to be a "performance" packaged in liturgy, hymn singing, and preaching, but that rather that worship "can come out of nothing and out of Presence." Ken joked about how eager these colleagues were to learn about the Quaker way of waiting worship: "Can you say more about silence?!"

    Katharine spoke quietly, in part due to her declining health as she deals with Parkinson's, but her Light shone clear in her words, gestures, and smile. She spoke about her movement into greater Listening and she hinted at her service to Friends as elder and spiritual companion.

    Ken did much of the talking, and his exuberance for living in the Life was palpable:
    • Practicing the Way of Love is something that not a lot of Friends know we have: it can come and go very quickly.
    • Tapping into God's Love means that God's Love is close, available, and accessible.
    • There are three words connected to the practice of the Way of Love: choice, obedience, and discipline.
    • The rhythm of Friends' life moves in three steps: releasing all that we hold onto, that keeps us from living the Way of Love; receiving the Light and the Love that is available to us; and the offering out to others and to the world all the Light and the Love that we ourselves have received.
    • All of us are being called to live the Way of Love, so we have a responsibility to help one another live into that call.
    It's this last point that gives me pause:
      All of us are being called to live the Way of Love, so we have a responsibility to help one another live into that call.
    Isn't that truly what is meant by answering that of God in everyone, to help one another live into that deep, silent call from the Inward Teacher...?

    And wouldn't that reminder put an end to all the fuss over theological differences--and even the seeds of war--when all we need to focus on is how we are being called to live the Way of Love?

    There were other evening presentations but this one had the most impact on me.

    Meetings for Worship for Business

    When the yearly meeting takes up its business, the first session or two consist mainly of reports from a number of smaller committees, reading of excerpts from epistles of other yearly meetings in the U.S. and from around the world, as well as the sharing of epistles from the two other Conservative bodies, Ohio Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

    This year it was noted that each of the three Conservative yearly meetings has welcomed a new monthly meeting into the fold: Crossroads Meeting (Michigan) became a part of Ohio; Davidson Friends Meeting (North Carolina) became a part of North Carolina; and Yahara Friends Meeting (Wisconsin) became a part of Iowa. (For the record, Laughing Waters Friends Worship Group remains unaffiliated, with some worshipers having affinity for Iowa, and others having affinity for Northern Yearly Meeting.)

    Among the reports that I was able to hear--I left a day early and missed the final business session--there was one from the Earthcare Subcommittee of the very-active Peace and Social Concerns Committee. The Earthcare Subcommittee included information on Yahara Meeting's program on evaluating the true cost of travel. Apparently, this program includes information on how to calculate one's petroleum use and the true cost of that use. Friends who are following this program then put the amount of money needed to cover that "true cost" into a fund for Scattergood Friends School to use as the school explores the use of wind power on its campus. (The school was recently made local news about its new solar panels and about its new head of school.)

    Other energy-conservation related initiatives were mentioned, such as Each of the above websites offer some creative thinking that is going on around the world in order to address climate change.

    Two other topics brought to the yearly meeting in recent years and again this year address immigration issues and the events surrounding the Postville, Iowa Agriprocessors raid. This year in particular, the Peace and Social Concerns Committee crafted a minute, which the yearly meeting approved, encouraging each Friend and monthly meeting of the yearly meeting to come under the weight of the concern for how the U.S. is addressing immigration. The minute, as I recall, directs Friends to become "well versed" in the issues and explore how to get involved locally, making the issue more personal.

    As someone who typically doesn't care for the activist element of many Friends' meetings, I am taken up by the hope and by the real-world practicality--grounded in Friends' testimonies, practice, and faith--that IYMC and its Peace and Social Concerns Committee lift up year after year. There is a humility among these Friends that I seldom experience in other monthly and yearly meetings, as they seek the way forward with complex and potentially overwhelming issues. That humility and keeping low appeals to me and speaks to me of the abiding Love that makes us all of one Family...

    Answering the Queries

    Every year, at least in the years I've attended, each monthly meeting sends answers to the Queries to the the assistant clerk, who then selects a representative response to each query to be presented during annual sessions. First the query is read aloud, followed by the selected response, with no mention made of the monthly meeting from where it comes.

    What was different for me this year as compared to other years was that for a number of months in 2009, the worship group I attend experimented with answering these queries "in the manner of Iowa Conservative Friends." As the queries and their responses were read, I fell into my own silent review of what some of our own comments were, as well as the overall deep worship and holy fellowship that we engaged in each month to consider that month's query. I found myself missing those opportunities of collective reflection, now that the worship group's ad hoc committee on affiliation has been laid down for a time.

    Answering queries as a body requires all of us to listen for and help articulate the True Response that exists wordlessly in the life of the worshiping body--which pragmatically means resisting the temptation to write "One Friend said this; another Friend said that; still another Friend added such-and-so..."

    Instead, when recording a response to a query, that response is to be representative of the extent to which Truth and Love prosper among us, as a gathered body, and relative to the topic of the query. When our replies authentically express our struggle as well as our success, and when those replies are shared with a larger body, such as a yearly meeting, we are likely to work harder to live in Gospel Order, tap into God's Love, and reach out to the stranger in order to bring about God's kin(g)dom.

    A few miscellaneous closing thoughts

    During one of the business sessions, we heard a report from the Ministry & Counsel Committee of the yearly meeting. Part of the report included a reference to the concern that some meetings have about diminishing numbers of worshipers. The committee encouraged Friends to resist the usual worry that accompanies this decline and instead focus on the opportunity that is given: to work together to deepen and grow the Life that is within the remaining worship community, to continue to focus on the Presence of God's Love in their midst, and to continue to answer God's call as it is revealed to them.

    To me, such counsel speaks to tending to the quality of the practice, not to the quantity of the practitioners.

    Lastly, this year is the last that Friend Deborah Fisch is serving as presiding clerk of the yearly meeting. She has served as clerk for more than ten years, and the clerk before her, Bill Deutsch, also served for (I believe) ten years.

    IYMC's practice has been to have a committee discern, together with the clerk, whether that Friend is to continue serving as clerk the following year. So it goes, year after year, allowing the Spirit to guide Friends as to which gifts are needed by the yearly meeting at what point and from whom.

    While it may well be true that my Conservative leanings as a Friend have been impacted directly by my personal friendship with Deborah over the years--I believe we met in 2000 when I began serving on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, where she works; and she has provided me with loving eldership over the years--I'll learn experimentally about the deeper nature of Conservative Quakerism in the midwestern U.S. as the incoming clerk presides over next year's annual sessions.

    I have put the dates in my calendar already: 26-31 Seventh Month 2011.


    July 26, 2010

    Packing interrupted

    I'm forcing myself to interrupt my preparation for the annual sessions of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) so that I can spit out a blogpost that's been sitting with me recently.

    I've been reading a few pages a day of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. Some of it is truly educational, at least for me, like the two competing abolition movements among Friends: one that advocated for the gradual ending of the slave trade--first by prohibiting the importation of Africans to the colonies, then moving into requiring the freeing of enslaved Africans and African Americans--and the other advocated for immediate emancipation of all those who were enslaved.

    Other parts of the book--at least, the first few chapters--have been rather horrifying and ego-busting, like just how few Quakers of European descent truly worked for abolition and how many Quakers were reluctant to give up their privilege of "owning" one or more Africans. ....I'm pretty sure if I had been an adult back in those days, I would have been among those who enslaved my African brothers and sisters. ...though I'd like to think, too, that I would have been opened by the Spirit and would have lent my help in some regards to the Underground Railroad or other elements of the abolitionist movement, but it's hard to know for sure. After all, these days I'm still slow to act when I see an injustice occur...

    And still other parts of the book are kind of a mirror for today. Back then, there were extremely wealthy Quakers of European descent who could direct enormous sums of money to efforts like the establishment of schools for emancipated African Americans. It makes me reconsider just where am I directing my surplus money? Am I sacrificing enough? It can't possibly be rightly ordered for me to hold onto my financial privilege, so how hard will it be for me to surrender to just what is rightly ordered?

    This book is not just about debunking "the myth of racial justice." It's also about allowing God to transform the book's readers by way of seeing how Friends from earlier times either turned from the Light or heeded it.


    July 22, 2010

    To clerk or not to clerk...

    Recently the informal fellowship-through-singing group of Quakers called Nightingales got together at a family farm in Wisconsin.

    In recent years, we've been moving through a transition that has meant saying goodbye to many of the long-time Friends who founded Nightingales. Most have either passed away or have become too frail to participate. As most of these "Celestial Mamas" have left us, their biological and spiritual offspring have been reluctant to step forward, but we've kept at it anyway. The thought of not having Nightingales is more painful than the work of understanding who we are as the torch is passed to us.

    We still gather about once a quarter to sing, eat, and camp. We still take work-shifts to help with food prep and clean-up. We still rent a Port-a-Potty and set up tents on people's land. And we still wrestle with how to welcome newcomers and who will say any words of explanation about "Nightingales' culture"--like, that we encourage folks to look into people's eyes and sing to one another, rather than have our noses pointed into our songbooks.

    Or that we have no designated leader but we ask that each person pick a song and then wait for others to have a chance to pick a song before requesting another one.

    Or that we allow the person who has requested a song to start it off as she or he wishes, to set the pitch and tempo, to select any alternate verses we are to sing (or skip), to ask someone else to start the song if he or she doesn't want to do so.

    It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but in practice it's very very simple.

    There's a comfort in sinking into the small pools of silence that frame each song, allowing us to consider what song to ask for next, or letting us absorb the tenderness of a hymn we just sang with especially sweet and delicate harmonies.

    There's another element to being a non-hierarchical Quaker-based somewhat-transient fellowship of Friends, and that is that on occasion, we have a request to address some business as a group.

    Maybe it's that there's a request for us to consider holding Nightingales at a campsite or joining with our smaller sister group to the south, the Meadowlarks, composed of Friends from Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

    Or maybe there's a concern that we don't make explicit enough the extent to which we welcome and incorporate children and young families, and we take some time to consider that need and craft some language that may (or may not) be used in future mailings.

    Lately, there's been a repeated concern about how we can be consistent from gathering to gathering so Friends may find it easier to join with us: What if the gatherings were the same weekend in April, July, and October? What if we had some guidelines around how many stories can be shared before introducing a new song?

    At the recent spring Nightingales, there had been some discussion about how to be more welcoming, how to make the most out of our time together, and how to "foster gathered singing," but what wasn't clear was what to do about that discussion. So it was that when we gathered for our summer Nightingales, a Friend asked that we have a short business session to follow up from spring.

    When the time came, though, the Friend realized she was not in a place to clerk, and the question came up, Who will clerk the session?

    A number of what I think of as "clerking decoys" were offered:

      What if we each just said what we wanted to say and made sure there was time between each sharing?

      How 'bout we go through the list of topics that was brought up last time?

      Let's just do worship-sharing around whatever the concern is.

      Why not use a talking stick?
    That last offering, as many readers might guess, turned my stomach. So of course that's when I spoke up:

    All of us here are at least familiar with Quaker practices so I prefer we not use a talking stick!

    Eventually, and in part because I felt a couple of Friends were hopeful I'd offer to clerk, I went on to say that I felt like we often talk about these same topics--how do we become more welcoming; what would help us be more consistent from gathering to gathering; how do we get the word out that Nightingales is gathering again...?

    I think I also added something like, Rather than rehash these same topics, I think we have to start living into the answers.

    To say the least, I was frustrated. We ultimately moved on to firm up plans for fall Nightingales (in October, outside of Milwaukee) and for spring Nightingales (in April, hopefully at the same camp in western Wisconsin where it was held this past spring).

    But what I came home with and have been reflecting on are two questions:
      When does a gathered body need a clerk, and when does it just need space to reflect on something together?


      Would Nightingales be served if one or two Friends were identified ahead of time to step in as clerk if a matter came up that warranted clerking?
    Of course, as an ad hoc group with little infrastructure between gatherings, there's no clear process to nominate anyone, other than in the moment.

    But as I was re-reading the summary of spring's discussion, I saw these two things, which had a way of making the other concerns melt away:
      We like to talk with each other and we don't want too many rules.


      We come together to sing because we love each other.
    I would add:

    We come together to sing because we love singing with each other. Somehow the Spirit just rises up in all of us, singing, and we are gathered in that experience.