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.

 

Ten things I like about being Quaker

Coming to join the Society of Friends, or Quakers, puts me in a unique religious circle.

Here are ten examples.

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  1. Nobody bosses me around. Well, not if the mutual discipleship we know as eldering is conducted in a loving and good order. In the old days, though, it was often quite restricting.
  2. Deep roots. We have a rich history, originating in the mid-1600s social and political upheavals in Britain, and a distinctive lifestyle to draw on for inspiration. Yes, lifestyle. While most Friends have dropped the distinctive Plain clothing and speech, we do hew to simplicity, honesty, integrity, equality, and non-violence in our daily lives. There are good reasons many modern Quakers drive a Prius.
  3. Mystical renewal. The core of Quaker worship is open worship, which is part of even pastoral Friends’ services, admittedly in a shortened form. In the traditional “silent” worship, it can be an hour of profound group meditation and rejuvenated awareness of the Holy Spirit.
  4. The timeless aesthetic. I hate to admit there were times in Quaker history where the restrictions would have been unbearable for me. But I am drawn to the witness that arose in it as demonstrated in the architecture of our old meetinghouses or the accounts of tender family life or the amazing prose of the ministry.
  5. Room to keep growing. Quaker faith is multifaceted. Spiritually, one can move about from Bible study to prayer to silent reflection to “mutual irradiation” with other faith traditions and back. Socially, there are many ways to serve within the congregation – in fact, volunteer service is crucial to the existence of the Meeting and the wider world of Friends. On top of that, our faith draws us to public witness, especially in matters of peace, equality, environmental action, and the like.
  6. We have only three degrees of separation – not seven. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find answers through Meeting connections.
  7. It’s my core community. Here are my kindred spirits, the people I respect and treasure.
  8. I have friends nearly everywhere. When I go to a new place, I quickly connect through Quaker Meeting – even if I’m just visiting. In fact, Friends in Cuba and Kenya open my eyes to Third World awareness.
  9. My family history and lost identity. When I joined Friends, I had no idea my father’s side had been Quaker from the outbreak of the movement right up to the 20th century. Reclaiming that identity gives me an internal perspective.
  10. Social justice issues. There’s no way I can address all of the world’s ills, but it is comforting to know that Friends are tackling key issues and deserve my support.

~*~

What do you like about your own path of faith?

Looking into the past

Apponegansett Friends meetinghouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Sometimes when I stop at old Quaker meetinghouses, I’ll try to take a photo of the interior through the windows. Reflections make it tricky, in this case casting an image of me and my camera back at  us. What remains is the rustic interior of the 1790 Apponegansett Friends meetinghouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, viewed from the former women’s side of the house, with a set of cedar dividing shutters lifted out of sight in the middle. The gallery for ministers and elders is at the left, and seating for the general membership is at the right. Does it get any simpler than this?

Why fundamentalist Christians prefer the King James translation

It’s less intelligible to the modern ear.

OK, that’s the flip retort, but it’s true. The King James Version of the Bible sounds truly remote and incomprehensible to most Americans, and I suspect that’s part of the appeal, the way Latin used to be for Roman Catholics.

I’ve tried to teach our teens in Meeting how to use the “thee” and “thou” that are so much a part of traditional Quaker expression, but find the kids are completely baffled. The 17th century language is the core of the KJV, too. Take note.

But as those fluent with Hebrew remark, the KJV is also full of mistranslations, some of them deeply ingrained in our English language and thinking.

We can blame one of the characters in my upcoming book The Secret Side of Jaya for that translation problem, since the KJV (more officially known as the Authorized Version) drew heavily from his English renderings. That’s something that could lead to an arcane debate we’ll not get into today.

As for me, I’d prefer cracking the nut open, using as many different translations as possible, making the events all the more astonishing.

You’re welcome to check out what I’ve been examining in my reading of the Bible straight through at my blog As Light Is Sown.

But first, in recognition of today’s celebration, Happy Easter.

Got any favorite books of the Bible?

My As Light Is Sown blog is running a weekly commentary on my experience and thoughts arising in reading the Bible straight-through, from Genesis to Revelation. It’s a wildly varied collection of writings.

But if I’d have to pick my top ten books? Here’s a stab.

  1. Gospel of John: I’m intrigued by a counterargument running through the text that identifies Christ as the Holy Spirit more than Jesus. You’ll have to wait for the post to see my reasoning. The book is also called the “Quaker gospel,” giving me an extra interest.
  2. Genesis: It’s a bang-bang-bang way to begin the chronology, with human desires and conflicts at the fore, even that far back in antiquity. Much of the book would make a great soap opera, but for me, it’s more primal and fundamental than that. Although it often seems to be a telling of patriarchy, keep an eye on the women. And don’t blame Eve when the ball starts rolling.
  3. The Psalms: This collection of heartfelt poems, many of them written anonymously in the guise of King David, span a range of deep emotion. They’re rich enough that the Eastern Orthodox read six in their entirety each Sunday – the same six.
  4. Ruth: The whole story explodes into fullness on a single word – Moabite. But what an incredible love story.
  5. Song of Songs: This is an incredible poem of illicit love. Forget the argument about it’s being an allegory about divine concern and all that. What is religion without passion? Leave it at that.
  6. Esther: Again, a complex soap opera is unleashed here. The bad guys don’t get any worse. By the way, “chamberlains” in the King James translation masks a bigger meaning – they’re eunuchs, who play a surprisingly big role throughout the Hebrew Bible.
  7. Revelation: Read this as poetry, not dystopian doom or a blueprint for human destruction.
  8. Ezekiel: I was surprised by how psychedelic this book is. Whoa!
  9. Tobit: The Apocrypha, not included in most Protestant or Hebrew Bibles, has some lovely stories. This is one. Like Susannah, also from the collection, it tells of injustice, suffering, and ultimate redemption.
  10. Epistle of James: The epistles, most of them attributed to Paul, are a specialty unto themselves. As the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Essenes, though, James has special authority.

~*~

What would you add to the list?

It doesn’t matter which you heard, so he says

As we were cleaning up after our monthly turn of cooking and serving dinner at the local “soup kitchen,” I turned to a trio of high school students who help our Quaker Meeting crew in the project.

“Hey, stick around and you can hear a performance of ‘Messiah.'”

They gave me glazed looks of incomprehension.

“You know, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ I’ll be singing in it.”

One of them changed her expression. “Oh! I know that!”

And she started to sing, but it wasn’t Handel.

My turn to smile.

“Ah, Leonard Cohen. My choir has a lovely arrangement of that, and it’s fun to sing.”

And then I sang a few measures from the classic oratorio, which they did recognize.

The evening’s event wasn’t my choir but an ad hoc assembly of singers from everywhere in the region, all of us stepping in with no rehearsal – you may know of similar Messiah Sings, a tradition that’s spread widely. It’s a blast and a great community celebration.

Meanwhile, the repertoire of my choir has a couple of dozen Hallelujah pieces. One’s in Russian, others in African tongues, and several in English. Funny thing, the word is part of nearly every language. That, along with Amen, Coca-Cola, and OK.

By the way, Cohen’s lyrics are powerful, honest, and heartbreaking, deeply grounded in Biblical incidents yet also personally confessional. His is a truthful and humbling counterpoint to Handel’s majesty.

Which experience better fits your reality this season?