For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.

 

Religion and the global backlash

Have you ever heard someone blame religion for all the armed conflicts in the world? It’s an easy accusation to make, at least until you look deeper to see the financial, ethnic, even racial motivations underlying the violent and oppressive actions throughout history.

Karl Marx may have called religion the opiate of the people, but he also saw economic inequalities as the real oppressor. Labor inequities were only the tip of that iceberg. For once, you can call me a Marxist, at least on that count.

As a member of a historic Peace Church denomination (a grouping that also includes Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish), I can view the wider Christian stream from a critical perspective that acknowledges the many ways faith communities get co-opted by what is often called the World in earlier pronouncements or Empire in corners of our own – even seduced by the vast range of secular idols. What emerges is corrupted and even false religion, not even of a godly scope.

That perspective can provide for a long examination, one far too broad for a mere blog post.

Nevertheless, in the face of the rising stream of intolerant and often violent social and political backlash across America and Europe, especially, I sense that the anger and hatred are fueled by a post-Christian mindset, one that is ultimately materialistic, divisive, and nihilistic.

In contrast, what I’ve often found in radical faith across traditions is an alternative of hope, humility, justice, and love. Repeatedly, progressive social, political, and economic reformers have had religious roots and support. It’s not an even history, and one that is too often countered by reactionary forces, but I wonder how else the world might turn back the growing darkness without people drawn together in deep spiritual faith and discipline.

The continuing marginalization of religion – especially radical religion, like that I espouse – is one more means of inhibiting any challenge to the few who are reaping the vast benefits of the ongoing social breakdown for their own personal gain.

Where do you find refuge, renewal, and opportunities for social progress?

 

If one approach doesn’t work, here’s another

The Bible often offers multiple versions, often sharply contrasted, as if knowing that we, as humans, will keep thinking and asking this and that without seeing the fuller picture behind words and our preconditioned concepts.

These versions say, in effect, “OK, you don’t accept that one, you don’t get it, so how about taking the matter from this angle?” Sometimes the facts or accounts even contradict themselves, especially in details, to get us to start questioning our assumptions. The whole point, I sense, is that ultimately the issue is unanswerable, along the lines of the conclusion of Job’s struggle. You just have to look at it in utter awe.

In an approach that says in effect, “OK, you didn’t understand this story, now try this one,” seems to assume, “You’re going to keep asking questions, thinking, circling, so let’s short-circuit that flow,” because much of what’s really at hand is beyond logic. No wonder in the big Job scene, God finally erupts in righteous indignation.

Quite simply, there are many times where words just can’t convey an awareness of the infinite. Or even a fleeting sunset. Or hope or love.

What can you think of that goes far beyond the ability of words to express fully?

 

Meet a Quaker

Many of the Dover’s churches have their booths at the city’s annual Apple Harvest Day festival, and the Quaker meeting is no exception. Here we are making the most of our past to let people know we’re still thriving today. We handed out homemade cookies – 1,162 of them baked the night before – and had kids pitch in to hand-crank grains of oats into oatmeal. The Quaker Oats company, by the way, was never owned by Quakers – they just liked our reputation for honesty and quality.

Considering labor

How do we make a living without seriously compromising our beliefs?  The military-industrial complex has extensively penetrated nearly all facets of American society. Not even the universities are immune. And corporations, in their quest for ever higher short-term profits, incur other moral difficulties. Law? Medicine? And so on. Until we as Friends resolve this, we are likely to face either accelerated decline in membership or inability to maintain our testimonies, which are eroding too rapidly as it is.

Where do we turn? Retreat into farming? Farmers aren’t surviving. As the French novelist inquired more than a half-century ago: Where are the shoemakers in the Society of Friends nowadays?

Professionals, as hired guns: rootless, living by our wits: how fast can you dance, pardner?

THOSE MISSIONARIES DON’T REALLY KNOW US

Recently, we got a white packet in the Quaker meeting post office box. The label was addressed to our Inner Light Preacher and came from the Columbus Missionary Society in Ohio.

We do get some weird mass mailings.

One mailing list has us as the Religious Order of Friends, which sounds to me like a monastery. Officially, Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, quite active in the wider world.

Pieces targeted to the Proprietor or the Chief Purchasing Agent always amuse me. Nobody owns us but God, for one thing, and even that can get unruly.

And then, like many other Quaker congregations, we have no paid staff, much less a pastor. Vocal messages arising during our hour of mostly silent worship each week are kept short and delivered without notes or, we hope, earlier intention.

Preaching? I’ve been accused of crossing the line, but we never have anything like what this is addressed to. Homiletics are out of the question.

Oh, yes, while many consider a doctrine of Inner Light to be a distinctly Quaker teaching, it was originally Inward Light, with a much different emphasis than is given today. To see my take on that, look at my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

So this envelope was a first.

Inside was a 53-page booklet titled Holiness (be filled with God) Or Hell (or spend eternity in Hell) by William Baxter Godbey, and inside that were three more. I decided to Google this guy, only to discover he was a Wesleyan evangelist who lived from 1833 to 1920. No wonder his text had such an old-fashioned ring!

One of the others was a 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and a third was by abolitionist and pioneering revivalist Charles G. Finney.

I can’t find anything about the missionary group online, but they did put some money into this mailing. What was their intent? The works simply don’t speak to us today, apart from some fundamentalist Christians. For the most part, Friends (to use the more formal name of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, based on John 15:14-15) have moved far beyond the confines of these arguments. I look at the writings as historical curiosities but am not moved by their legalistic thrust.

In short, I’m left baffled.

The cover letter, by the way, was signed merely, “Love, A Brother.” And since there was no return address, only a Zip code, I can’t exactly ask him, either.

COMMEMORATING 250 YEARS IN THE QUAKER MEETINGHOUSE

Dover Friends Meeting where I worship is the fifth oldest congregation in the state – and the first that was not part of the governmentally sponsored parishes that are now affiliated with today’s United Church of Christ.

Our meetinghouse – the third we’ve had, in fact – is the oldest house of worship in the city, and this year marks the 250th anniversary of its construction.

It went up on a single day in 1768, much like an Amish barn raising in our own time. There were likely 150 men and boys at work on the construction itself, plus an equal number of women and girls preparing food and the like.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re holding an open house at 2 p.m. There will be tours, a reading of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “How the Quaker Women Came to Dover” (his parents were married in the meetinghouse), presentations of activities we’re involved in, light refreshments and conversation, and a closing concert by musically talented members and the audience.

All are welcome.

TAKE A SELFIE WITH WILLIAM PENN

If the weather is fair, Dover’s annual Apple Harvest Day today will attract a crowd twice the size of the city’s population to the downtown.

Since there are no commercial orchards within the city limits, I’ve always been baffled by the festival’s name, but it does come a week ahead of the Columbus Day holiday, when most of the other communities in the state host end-of-the-season blowouts. It’s nice to beat the competition.

For several years now, Dover Friends Meeting has been among the nonprofit organizations that have participated. Our canopied booth offers a meet-and-greet opportunity to let people know that Quakers do indeed still exist and to invite folks to join us in reflective worship on Sunday mornings.

We’ve heard that as a nonprofit, we need to make 17 positive impressions, on average, before anyone responds, so we’re not discouraged if people don’t show up in our meetinghouse later.

It’s a two-way street, frankly. Answering questions can be a big way of getting a clearer view of the way others see us.

I was startled, for example, when one woman asked if you have to be a protester to be a Quaker. (Answer: No!)

And when some confuse us with the celibate Shakers, we now respond, “Shakers made beautiful furniture. Quakers make trouble.”

And last year, many folks told us how much they appreciate our “Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions” banner across the front of our building.

This year we’re setting out to have fun. Period.

You know, take a selfie of yourself standing with William Penn. Well, someone dressed as a not-too-accurate impersonator. Or you can make your own real Quaker rolled oats using one grain, a hammer, and an anvil. (Watch your thumb, please!)

Or here, have an oatmeal cookie or take a recipe for granola.

That sort of thing.

We’ll still have a bowl of water out for passing dogs and, as a new touch, a small changing station for parents or grandparents with infants.

It’s still a work in progress. Will probably always be, I hope.

CLOCKING THE FORECAST

YES, EVERYBODY TALKS about the weather. I’m no exception, and I usually enjoy the exchange. But I also listen with a grain of salt. To take a longer view and talk about the seasons, however, is another matter – one heightened in recent years by concerns about climatic upheaval and global warming. Living as I have in various locales in a band across the northern half of the United States, I’ve come to appreciate a wide seasonal ebb and flow. Deep snowfall and subzero spells, crackling and booming thunderstorms, an extended spring – I’m not one for the monotonous sunshine of Florida or southern California. I want to be jolted and moved, with all the accompanying influence on my emotions and thinking. There are seasons for curling up late at night with a book; others for reading on the beach or under the trees. Times for shoveling snow or cross-country skiing; times for raking leaves and mulching. Each new place has meant adjusting my expectations and observing fine differences from what I had previously encountered. All this, before dealing directly with the variations from one year to another within a specific place.

Over the years, the repetition adds up to knowledge and expectation. As the winter solstice observations of Christmas and New Year’s, there’s anticipation before ordering garden seeds in January and bringing the grow lights up from the cellar so you may start the seedlings. Having the cross country boots and skis ready. Keeping an eye on the pussy willows, to collect their sprigs. Planting, harvesting, cooking, sharing, and preserving. There’s the anticipation of the sequence of flowers or garden produce, each to be savored in its moment. From asparagus, snow peas, and strawberries through to potatoes, garlic, and leaks. From snow lilies, forsythia, and crocus through to asters and Jerusalem artichokes. Ordering firewood early, so it will season properly. Calling the chimney sweep and annual furnace checkup. Making room in the compost bins for October leaves. Trimming the hedges. And that’s just from a homeowner’s and urban gardener’s perspective. Normally, I wouldn’t be writing in July – my attic workspace simply becomes too stuffy, but this year’s an exception. There are other fronts. We’ve brewed ales in late autumn and lagers in deep winter, to take advantage of the favored requirements of each yeast. There’s also the seasonal flow of paying taxes and insurance, registering the car, taking a vacation, enjoying holidays. We also see academic years, baseball and football seasons, opera and symphony seasons, television seasons. There are many more, of course, as you start looking.

The challenge comes in not falling behind, but to instead preparing for the next stage. Here come the tomatoes, here comes the sweet corn. Pace yourself for the playoffs. Budget accordingly.

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