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.

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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.

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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?

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.

Coming to the culmination of Great Lent

In his “Note on the Religious Tendencies” published by Liberation magazine in 1959, the Zen Buddhist and poet Gary Snyder remarked, “The statement common in some circles, ‘All religions lead to the same goal,’ is the result of fantastically sloppy thinking and no practice.” His very next sentence is equally startling. “It is good to remember that all religions are nine-tenths fraud and are responsible for numerous social evils.”

Well, the essay is largely a defense of the beat generation, and he was an American studying in monasteries in Kyoto. I wonder if he’d admit today how much social progress and learning have come about through religion, too. That could make for an illuminating debate.

I did hear him once mention that on the Buddhist spectrum, Zen starts at one extreme and Tibetan tradition at the other, but that as followers of each advance in their practice – as he said this, his outstretched arms began to sweep over this head – they eventually approach and then cross places. Just as his arms were doing. Go far enough, of course, and each would land where the other one had set forth.

Without going into detail, I find a lot in common there when it comes to Quakers and Eastern Orthodox on the Christian spectrum.

The one is plain, even austere, and very much centered in the present. The other is visually and tactily rich, accompanied by an accentuated awareness of mortality and death.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a Quaker who’s been fascinated lately with Greek Orthodox life. It doesn’t all spring from questions arising as I drafted and revised my novel What’s Left, either. Besides, Cassia’s family wasn’t all that observant of their native faith, even if members were toying with the Tibetan Buddhism her father practiced.

Admittedly, few Americans know much about either Quakers or Orthodox Christians, despite their impact on the larger society. Ditto for Buddhism.

Today is an especially important day for the Orthodox.

Continue reading “Coming to the culmination of Great Lent”

‘Vegan Before 6’ for Great Lent

As Quakers, we’re not confined to a liturgical calendar or its requirements. Even so, through much of our history, members of the Society of Friends lived within the limitations of strict discipline, which included plain dress like the Amish and plain speech of the “thee” and “thou” sort.

These have greatly loosened up over the past century, which is not to say we don’t live out a distinct set of values – we’re just more flexible or forgiving. Non-violence and pacifism, equality, simplicity, social justice, and truthfulness remain forefront in our daily lives. Few Friends I know smoke, and in our circles, I suspect the majority now drive Priuses as a consequence of faith. Many, but by no means all, participate in vigils or social witness demonstrations.

But being Quaker doesn’t preclude us from what Douglas Steere coined “mutual irradiation,” acknowledging that we can learn from others’ religious practices and experiences and encourage them in their own. It’s not the same as a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, but rather a willingness to be inspired and enlightened by our differences. It’s something I’ve been enjoying among the Greek-Orthodox where I live, and found with Mennonites and Brethren earlier. It’s also a principal reason I participate in the Dover Area Religious Leaders’ Association and our joint services.

Of course, remarrying has changed some of my perspectives. With children, especially, there was no way of downplaying Christmas, not in contemporary American society. (Historically, Friends were among those who considered it a pagan import.) I’ve previously posted about the revolutionary ways observing Advent has helped me cope with the commercial assault of that holiday.

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Eliminating a liturgical calendar also meant we also didn’t observe Easter. (Every day was to be holy.) And without Christmas or Easter, there would be no Advent or Lent.

Leap ahead.

There’s no way to totally ignore these, not when no longer live in close communities of our own and are often the only Quaker in our workplace. On top of that, many of us come from other faith traditions and carry within us many of those teachings and traditions, one way or another.

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All of this leads up to to a desire in our household to use Advent and Lent as times of renewal and rededication. We try to do a special reading together, at the least, and usually give up alcohol.

For the record, by the late 19th century, most Quakers had banned alcohol altogether – it’s not uncommon to meet Friends who have never had a drink in their life. On the other hand, when I admitted to enjoying a glass of beer or wine, one old Friend replied, “Jnana, in thy occupation, we’d be surprised if thee didn’t.” Remember, I was a newspaper editor.

So, here we are in what the Eastern Orthodox call Great Lent, and I’m surviving without my daily martini or a glass of wine with dinner. Abstaining reminds me of just how habitual these things become. Besides, I believe saying “no” for a season can be strengthen one’s willpower for other decisions, too.

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One year, my wife and I went largely vegan for Advent. She had reviewed all of the Eastern Orthodox dietary rules for that observance and concluded they were essentially vegan with the additional elimination of olive oil and alcohol. Oh, and when she concluded that since olive oil would have been the only oil in the eastern Mediterrean, she extended the ban to all cooking oils.

It was a tough period, as I posted at the time. She did come up with some marvelous dishes all the same, but rather than being freed from considerations of food, she was spending more time trying to find ways to manage.

This year, for the period of Great Lent, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Remember, we’re not confined to the ancient regulations, we’re doing this voluntarily. (And, as I’ve learned, the Orthodox rules are only suggested, not required, of the faithful.) What we’re doing is inspired by food guru Mark Bittman’s book Eat Vegan Before 6:00. In short, we have more options when it comes to the evening meal – especially, as we’re applying this, on the weekends.

Since I’m already trying to observe a Healthy Heart diet, I’m not seeing a lot of change. The biggest challenge has involved my morning coffee, which is already down to a single cup a day, thanks to another medical restriction.

No, alas, there are no wonder substitutes for dairy.

Homemade almond milk comes closest – we find much of the commercial variety to be vile. But almonds are comparatively expensive, and soaking the nuts and grinding and straining take time.

Oat milk, made from oatmeal, starts cooking in hot liquid, leaving an unpleasant layer of sludge in the bottom of the mug.

Coconut milk tastes like coconut, which I find disconcerting.

Black coffee seems harsh on an empty stomach – a sliver of lemon helps a little, somehow.

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So I’m counting the days till Easter – the Orthodox version, which comes at the end of Passover, a full week later than the Western celebration.