20 December 2009

Community and Individualism

This morning I was snowed in, and unable to get to Meeting for Worship.  I'm always sad when this happens, because I have come to rely deeply on the time spent in corporate silence, to direct my life and focus me for the week ahead.  Why, you ask?  It is because I believe deeply that one cannot live a life of integrity and wholeness devoid of community.

I found this video on youtube this morning, (The Myth of the Individual, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI4KIos7tuU)  as I was searching for a sort of community with my fellow Friends via Quakerquaker and a variety of other social connection sites.  Parker Palmer talks here about the paradox of community and individualism; that one cannot exist without the other.  In order to bring ourselves into community, he says, we must bring ourselves, our whole individual self, to the table.  This short conversation is well worth listening to as a foundation for your own silent meditation.

I have mostly approached this conversation as a dialectic for our societal culture of individualism.  I want to call to Friends to stand strong and vocal in their communities, to call others to join in, and to speak out in our individualistic society for the need for community.  I have said that I feel that community is the single most powerful tool Quakers bring to the table, whether the conversation be about peace, ecopolitics, world hunger, or any other social justice issue. 

What Parker Palmer speaks about is the paradox of individualism and community:  that one cannot exist without the other.  In fact, a conversation about being a strong individual has no merit spoken in a vacuum.  What he points out is the strength of the many individuals discerned in corporate worship; that in the practice of sharing our silence, we begin to be able to discern the greater good that can be found.

I don't want to digress from this message in too much conversation here.  Rather I would encourage you to listen to Parker's message and spend some time with me in silence.  Then bring to the conversation what you have heard from the Greater Good, the Light within.

05 December 2009

Talk to me about True Community

"The great danger in our utopian dreams of community is that they lead us to want association with people just like ourselves. Here we confront the third myth of community -- that it will be an extension and expansion of our own egos, a confirmation of our own partial view of reality. But in true community we do not choose our companions. Instead, they are given to us by grace. In fact, true community might be defined as that place where the person we least want to live with always lives!"
Parker Palmer, A Place Called Community
Pendle Hill Pamphlet

For a long time, I have been thinking about Friends Community.  In fact, it was the fact that Friends were a 'Religious Society' that played a large part in my feeling this was where I belonged spiritually.  Something inside of me has railed against the notion of rugged individualism, since I was too young to know what that meant.  As I came to understand the concept of ongoing revelation, I came to understand that Spirit had been leading me for a long time regarding this issue.  

In seminary, I was studying pastoral counseling, and I was searching for a way to talk about spirituality and family therapy.  It seemed clear to me that one could not counsel one person in a family without considering the whole.  Gradually it came to me that this was like the passage from 1 Corinthians 12, which refers to the varying spiritual gifts.  Indeed, I came to see that each member of a family possessed different gifts, and these each needed to be brought into the light.  A Meeting functions much in the same way:  those drawn to be a part of each bring different gifts, and the manner in which all of those gifts "fit" together comprises the personality of the Meeting.

I wrote my master's thesis on the Body of Christ as a model for pastoral family therapy.  I can look back now and say honestly that I barely scratched the surface on the use of this metaphor.  I was more a therapist than a Biblical scholar, and really what I was trying to say was how we cannot ignore the whole of any organization, and that if we treated each part of the whole as though it could not simply be ignored because it didn't fit, then we would all be better off.

This is still my theoretical belief, although quite a few years more of living has certainly shown me how much more difficult this is in practice.  In my years as a convinced Friend, I have seen meetings struggle with virtually every kind of community issue, from mental illness, to diversity, to the rights of individuals vs. the rights of the whole, to politics, to religious beliefs.  Often, in practice, we, and I in particular, have come up dreadfully short of the spiritual ideal.  Still, our desire and willingness to struggle with the queries, to worship listening for direction, and to continue to strive towards what we believe God would have us do, has led me to believe more and more that I am a Friend in as many the ways as George Fox and the early Friends were.

I remain convinced that our experience of living community combined with our desire to live our beliefs is the single strongest corrective  we present to the world against the cold shoulder of individualism in our society.  It has led us to develop and practice methods of peaceful resolution to conflict, to see the global issues as our own issues, and to practice creative ways of being Present with others, no matter their condition.  It has led me to begin to study more in the Bible, and to begin to read the history of Friends in community from a desire to live these principals more deeply.. 

Here is where you come in:  As I embark on this project, to write a book about what it means and has meant to be in community over the history of Friends, I am interested in knowing your thoughts.  I would like to hear what it is you have read and the role community plays (or doesn't) in your being a Friend. I am interested in knowing what you have read that has piqued your curiosity about how Friends have lived in community, both the Light and the shadow sides.

As I am doing my own survey of literature, and re-reading the journals of early Friends, like Fox,  Penn, Barclay and Naylor,  on forward into more modern times, reading Parker Palmer, Lloyd Lee Wilson, Douglas Steere, and Thomas Kelly, it occurs to me that you may have resources within your meetings and yearly meetings that would be helpful in this regard.  I found one such resource in this regard in the Faith and Practice of South Eastern Yearly Meeting:

"Each of us has unique and creative contributions to make as we allow the Light to shine through us. A Meeting community needs the God-given leadings and spiritual gifts of each of its members. Individuals, in turn, need the Meeting community to be a safe place to explore whether their leadings are from the Light, and to exercise their gifts and abilities. This individuality and diversity of gifts can develop and be celebrated because the unity of the group resides in the Spirit through real connections and commitments to God and to each other, not in outward conformity. The spiritual understanding of individuality stands in sharp contrast to the “rugged individualism” which is rampant in our culture. For generations, people have abandoned traditional forms of community – small towns and extended families – for various reasons, among them the pursuit of personal economic mobility, “progress” and wealth. Individualism has become a value system in which the rights of the individual are often believed to be in conflict and competition with the needs of the community and the environment."

Knowing the process that  Yearly Meetings go through to reach agreement of what statements will be made public and printed in Faith and Practice, I see this as one very valuable resource to my process.  It also leads me to see that my survey of literature could prove endless, so it is here that I ask for your help.

Please share with me your own leadings about community, and the resources that you have found most helpful.  Full credit will be given to each resource, and it is my hope that the information gleaned through this method will provide a rich and very deep understanding of the nature of Friends' community then and now, that will be useful to us as Friends, and possibly of value to the larger world community.

03 December 2009

Christmas Gifts

Well, it's here-- the inevitable Big Holiday Season is upon us.  And guess what?  I'm not doing IT this year.

That's right, Nada, Zilch, Nothing, Zero, None.  No big holiday season.  What a relief.
After all these years of saying it doesn't matter, that how we treat each other all year is what's important, that it's the simple things that matter, that it is unQuakerly to buy into all the Christmas Hype, I finally get it.  It took my son to say to me, "I'm just not into this Christmas thing this year."  And I felt that big sigh of relief come over me.  "Yeah, me either," I tried to say calmly as I rejoiced inside.  My son had in fact set me free.  This year, we are going to spend time with each other, but we are dispensing with gift giving of any physical sort.

We are all stressed, for money, for our health, for time, for peace, for all the things that matter.
So this Christmas, what I am giving for gifts is this...  Do you need an ear?  A moment of peace? A little heart? A kind touch? A quiet place to be?  A soft place to land?  I have all those things to offer. Friends have offered them to me, as well.

"A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it ... It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God's errands, as it is to palliate them with God's name... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel."

I've read this passage over and over this year.  William Penn said it in 1693. It has resonated to me on so many levels.  What's also come to mind repeatedly is my favorite passage, in First Corinthians 13:1-13:

 1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Many years I've haunted myself with thoughts of not doing enough, being enough, having enough.  This year I have even less, in terms of things.  I couldn't shower people with presents even if I wanted to.  I don't have money, my health is less than great, and I certainly don't have the energy in the midst of my job search. Yet I am at peace.

I do have this one thing:   LOVE.

I am surrounded by family, friends, community, meeting, god, light -- LOVE.

Let us then try what LOVE will do.

Let us then TRY what love will do.

Let US then try what love will do.

Let us then try WHAT love will do.

The greatest blessing of my life has been to be filled with the Light of God and experience that Love.  It is a gift that cannot be taken away, worn out, used up, or returned.  It is never the wrong size, always just right.

I LOVE each and every one of you, and I am blessed to have you in my life.  Thank you for that gift

10 November 2009

Gossip as the Dark Side of Community

 Exodus 20:16
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Matthew 12:36
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.

Ephesians 4:29;31
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers... Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

I've had my interest picqued to the discussions online about gossip lately (http://emergingquaker.blogspot.com/2009/11/gossip-and-quakers.html, http://www.quakerranter.org/gossip_and_ownward_spirals.php).  It's an issue that has alternately plagued and perturbed me, so I'd like to throw in my lot, including a bit of perspective I've learned from 12 step programs:

The attraction of gossip, as I see it, is that when I am involved in talking about someone else, I am able to avoid a host of other things, like taking responsibility for myself and my actions, saying uncomfortable things to people (like, "stop talking about others, please!").  Then there's the entertainment value of gossip, which, while occupying an extremely low rung in the intelligence/entertainment scale, I'll admit, does seem to be what gets people started.

Something in human nature has us crave information about others.  On a certain level, it is a part of what being community is, caring about your neighbors, thinking of others, etc.  However, almost as soon as a word is uttered, the dark side of community is out.  Here all of human nature turns on itself, and we are drawn to the colorful, the curious, and most certainly the weakest.
It's a little like the wounded cat in a den of lions; even though they know it to be one of their own, they cannot resist picking at it, sometimes even killing it and eating it!  It is a short route from caring for ones' own to destroying the weak link.  Is this a part of humans too?

I've seen it even in little children as they pick on the weakest in their lot.  This morning I was involved in a discussion with some friends about how we handled being bullied as children, and how we taught our own children. Even though I frequently felt defenseless as a child, something in me gave me the courage to line up my neighbor friends against the baseball backstop and rail at them when I felt they had hurt my little brother.   I raised my children to be non-violent, to be thoughtful of even the smallest or weakest in the group, to show mercy to all, and to have compassion as they would want.  Never, I told them, was there a reason to strike another, and the route to dealing with bullies was to ignore them.  I know for a fact they sometimes suffered at the hands of bullies as a result, but I know as well that they remain committed to non-violence, as I do.

Another friend told of her mom teaching her how to make a fist, and to hit once and as hard as possible, to deter bullies.  Another said her mother fought her battles for her.  We were trying to look at how these philosophies stood us as adults, when our neighbors or co-workers seemed determined to dog us.

I still maintain that my strongest offense is being prepared, and that planned ignorance gets me a long way.  What always comes to mind is Ghandi's refusal to respond to violence with violence, and how ultimately those perpetrators came to look foolish or weak in the eyes of others.  I have seen that same thing happen when one refuses to accept gossip about another.

This seems, however, like the hardest issue to make any headway with people about:  When people start to gossip, tell them you would rather not have this information, I say.  Even if it's about you, trust me, you don't want to know it.  In AA they have a saying, "what other people think about me is none of my business."  It's true, and it is good advice.  What I don't know can't hurt me, and when you tell me, trust me, it is going to hurt me, and you can't possibly know how much.  So while I can't stop you from gossiping, I can certainly try to keep you from giving me the information.

I have to be compassionate towards myself as well as others.  If I allow another person to pass gossip, I am as responsible as the other person for the results, which will inevitably be more far-reaching than I could ever have seen.  Try as I may, I can't guarantee (nor can you, I'd reckon)  that I won't pass information on, particularly if I think it could serve some "good purpose."   I can't predict what effect the information is going to have on me either, as far as coloring my otherwise good relationship with a person.  Try as I may, I am pitifully poor at remembering that this information is only one opinion about the person, and the more juicy the information it is, the more amnesiac my brain becomes.

I hate that part of myself, and I hate it in others.  So there seems to be only one solution, which is to never let myself hear the information.  I can't stop the harm that others might be bent on doing me, but I can certainly refuse to take notice of it.  I can refuse to lower my standards of living my beliefs, by not letting slander into my frame of reference.

I have been the victim of this kind of gossip, in my own meeting, so I speak from a place of knowledge of both sides of the street.  I know that the people who passed information about me that was hurtful were convinced that they spoke "the truth."  If it was, it was their own truth, not mine.  What they interpreted as ignorance or blindness on my part was in fact an attempt to be compassionate, in a way that did not fit those individuals; definitions.  The result was that we all felt separated and alone, wounded, in the midst of our community.

In our meeting, we have since tried to address this kind of behavior by teaching each other that if a friend comes to us with information, we reply, "Let us go together to this person to see if this information is true or has any merit," or "Let us seek out the help of elders together, so that we can see our way clear of this."  We do not want to "accidentally" pass on erroneous  information, nor do we want to fail to address a situation that might be cause for alarm.  By going to the individual to seek clarity, or by seeking the help of wise others, we will hopefully avoid unnecessary hurt.

Over and over we have heard that this path of ours as Friends is one of attraction not of promotion.  How can we claim this and not see that the most powerful lesson we teach is the power of example.

Practicing refusal to lay claim to negative information about another, whether it be false information about a friend or the president, is one of the simplest forms of speaking truth to power.   I say, simply, "Please do not give me this information."   I ask, "What is your purpose in giving me this information?"  If I hear a cause for alarm, I say, "Let us seek the help of others."
I love my community, and I will go to any lengths to protect it.  Keeping secrets from others is never a safe or healthy form of protection.

07 November 2009

"Quakers live their principles." (Friends as a Corrective for Culture, Part 2)

I found this apt quote in the exquisite article in November's Friend's Journal, "Living in Right Relationship:  How Does Spirit Call Us?"  The writer was told by a good friend that they might be a Quaker, because "Quakers live their principles."  Simple. This revelation, which also came to me quite a few years ago, on a wistful New Years' Eve, has turned out to be the making of a life's journey.  That year it came to me that rather than making the proverbial list, I need to only "Live What I Believe."

Simple is not always easy.  What's refreshing about Hollister Knowlton's article is the suggestions towards action, "10 steps you can do that give me hope."  I love queries, but I sometimes like suggestions too.  In looking at how others have answered their queries, I am offered the opportunity to come to new places myself, places I hadn't thought of before.

Originally, I saw Friends as the corrective to the hypocritical, Sunday-go-to-church crowd I was sick and tired of from my traditional church upbringing.  I was seeking, but I was seeking out of anger and disgust and frustration that it seemed the world of the 1970s was full of people who liked to talk a big show but were incapable of or uninterested in living it.   Gradually, as I became immersed in a community of people who walked their talk, I was able to shed off the anger at "those others," and focus more on the doing and being myself.

I have an acceptance of what is that serves me well these days.  I'm no longer frustrated with the empty  talkers, and sometimes I'm even able to let the negativity sowers be.  Why?  Because the business of living what one believes does not allow much time for my own negativity.  When I find myself sinking to that point, I know I am avoiding some part of myself I do not want to face.

I'm not going to review Knowlton's article here, other than to tell you that it is good reading, good food for thought, and it offers a bit of a roadmap for living in right relationship with the earth, something we could all use.  Please read it; I don't think you will be disappointed.

For this discussion,  I'm using the article as a jumping off point for my latest soapbox, Friends as a Corrective for Culture.

I've been alarmed by some of the posts that I've found on sites like wikipedia and expert.com that stated that Friends follow individualistic spiritual paths. This is a gross misstatement of our manner of being.  While Friends may welcome others, wherever they are on their spiritual path, the path is neither an individualistic or solitary one.  For the path of being a Quaker is one that can not be defined in a vacuum; it must be experienced as a part of the whole.

What makes Friends a corrective for culture is exactly this point:  Friends were formed in the image of the most original followers of Christ:  those disciples that formed the original community around him.  There was an attraction that Fox felt to this haggard group of strangers become friends:  they were the ones who were so filled with faith from the hearing of the words of God spoken through one who felt himself to be God's son, that they were willing to leave everything behind in order that they might follow him.

There was nothing ordinary or regular about the action on the part of the disciples.  There was no reason given, no proof offered as a reason for faith.  It was something felt at a pure level of love.  Those who were touched by the spirit of the teachings of the young Jesus were never the same again.  Often they left their families, their careers, their sense of everything that was secure behind them, and they followed him.  No wonder Fox, beleaguered in his seeking, found renewed faith here.

Most of us are not so privileged to have this experience in our lifetime.  But this is the experience Fox had as he listened inwardly to the voice of Christ.  "There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to your condition."  These are the words he heard and spoke to others.

Living one's principles is the hardest thing we do in this world.  Often there is nothing in the external world around us that supports us in doing this.  I imagine this is how Fox felt.  He had traveled around his world, speaking to professors, to pastors, to scholars, to the faithful, and there was none who could speak to his condition.  The regular rituals of his families spiritual. practice did not speak to him.  I imagine that after such a period of searching, he must have felt close to hopeless.   In times I have had like this, I have even questioned (and I know I'm not the only one) whether this life is worth it.  In this low time, George Fox heard the voice of Christ, speaking to him personally, and speaking directly to his condition.

He did not remain alone for long.  Fox himself was moved by the spirit that directed him, and he could not keep quiet.  It did not take long before others were attracted to his message and had begun to gather with him to talk about what was missing in the church of the day.  Those who were uncomfortable and disconcerted met to discuss what they felt was needed to re-value the spiritual life of Christians.  They became so excited by this discourse that they in turn could not remain silent.

Ever since I realized that this was the time of the Bible first being printed in English and becoming available at least to the wealthy, I have been struck by what a new era dawning this was!  No longer was the populace subject to priests and their interpretation of the Word.  People now had access to the Bible, and they were relatively free to interpret what the Scripture said to them, if they dared.  This is where Fox found his direction.  The Bible, and the words of Christ in his heart, did not speak the same message that preachers had tried to teach him; indeed he heard something that might truly be considered heretical.

What was unique about this gathering of seekers was that each brought to the conversation their own leadings.  Fox was as interested in hearing what the others were hearing, as he was in communicating his own message.  The community that evolved was something new indeed: they were freed from the bondage of strict interpretation by powers above them, to be in intimate conversation with the Christ within.

Have you had moments in your spiritual life where you have exhausted your resources, internal and external.  Life is leaving you flat, lacking meaning or direction.  There is no good reason you shouldn't follow the common thought on an issue, yet it doesn't feel right.  You search for justification and find none.  Still their is a nagging feeling inside of you that will not let go and you cannot settle yourself.  After a long period of confusion, you begin to feel a stirring and to find a direction out of your conundrum that is creative, if not outrageous, compared to the common thought.  Is it a relief?  Or is it a point of further confusion?

You must know, as I do, that there are times you have turned inward, and you have "heard" that still small voice, leading you forward in the way you know, without a doubt is the right way.  But what about the times that the leading, while intriguing, seems a little outrageous?  You may feel frightened, because what you feel led to is outside of your comfort zone.

Quakers live their principals.  Not always, not forever, not perfectly, but yes, when we pause to listen, we generally live what we believe.  Just how do we do that?

I know of no healthy person who can individually set out to live their beliefs, and have any success at doing so, in a vacuum.  I don't think humans are built with the ego strength to do such a thing.  Our thoughts can be amazingly creative, but they lack the consistency and clarity to make a real path without one essential ingredient:  community.   Without the support and challenge of those around us, we are quick to stray from what seemed only a second ago a clear path.

It is the community of Friends that brings our inner leading to be the thing which we live.   The voice of God, which we may hear so clearly in that moment, becomes distorted if we leave it to live within our own solitary mind alone.   What separates the sage seeker from the solitary psychotic soul, is the willingness to let the leading stand the test of coming before community.  Without this seasoning, how can be sure one has not just heard one's own narcissistic yearning?

In a strictly individualistic society, everyone is free to develop their own view of what is "ultimate".  The rest of us, who are not such strong leaders, will be led by the charisma of that single leading, if we are not encouraged to question and to challenge.  What makes Friends community different, in my experience, is that it is not a community built out of static teachings from a book.  The mystery of ongoing revelation is constantly unfolding, and the teachings are constantly evolving. It is the community of seekers that brings wholeness to the experience: no one of us can possibly possess the whole picture.  Each of us, listening intently in our times of silent attentiveness, brings to the community table our piece of the puzzle and adds it to the whole. 

Accordingly, one of us may possess the gifts for holding together the physical structure of the commmunity, another the teachings, another the creativity to add a process to the information, another a gift for healing and so forth.  Individually, the pieces may not even make sense.  But if we are willing to worship together, to work together, and to break bread together, we will find that together we form a much stronger and more complete whole.

I may hold a principal that says I should stand for peace.  Individually, I may stand for that peace, by holding a sign, by writing a letter, by praying, or by being a conscientious objector.  If my government, my neighborhood, or the society continue to tell me that I am unpatriotic, or unfair, or unrealistic, I alone may not stand for long by that belief.  However, if in the course of a week, I have a conversation with my friend about my struggle, I may stand a little longer.  If in worship, I hear leadings that speak to the heart of why I am for peace, I may feel strengthened.  In my prayers, I find myself led to speak to others, and they are strengthened.  Perhaps we travel together to a demonstration, or we write letters after worship.  We gather with a family whose child is approaching 18 and we talk about what the choices are.  Gradually, simply, God gathers us together and strengthens us.  The resources God means for me to have to live my path on earth are present in that community. 

If my leading is off base, there is a good chance that in worship I will hear leadings, inwardly or from others, that do not support what I think I am to do.  Thus I will not go too far down the path without a correction, like using a compass to keep my direction.  Gradually, as I am willing to risk sharing my leadings with others, I am offered the direction needed, and I do not feel desperate or lonely on my path.  A friend, who knows me well from participation in the meeting, may feel a leading to talk to me about my own direction, or a wiser, more experienced friend may feel called to "elder" me on a topic where I seem off base.  It's a simple matter of being a part of the whole.

The outside world, as Knowlton tells us, sees that "Quakers Live their Principals."  It could sound like a grand concept.  In reality, it is the end result of living one's life in relationship with God, and in relationship with the community that God has called us to be a part of.  As we understand that God has brought us together, we do not take either our friendships or our community lightly, and we come to live what we are called to, in faith, and with the support of that gift of community.

Friends live their principles, it is true.  As we stand together, as we share a meal, care for each other, push each other to grow, we each find the strength and courage to live what we believe.

20 October 2009

A feeling of Real Need.

“A feeling of real need is always a good enough reason to pray.”

-Hannah Whitall Smith

God's words through Hannah Whitall Smith, through Brent Bill, through Robin M's blog, What Canst Thou Say, to my ears and eyes.  Prayer is the process spirit uses to minister to us all, if we choose to listen.

I believe if we are able to be still enough, if we practice our faith, then the direction we need is readily available to us.  Prayer is one of the doorways to access that guidance. Meditation, yoga, spending time outdoors, worship, reading, chanting, walking a labyrinth, singing:  these are just some of the other ways I have found access to that spiritual direction over the years.

Sometimes I wonder if it was easier to become still in the pre-technology age.  I can scarcely remember.  What I can recall is the feeling of my first camping trip with my friends, without parents to direct the flow.  The feeling of sitting on a rock next to a stream listening to the water fall over rocks and the wind whisper through the trees.  Even in my pre-Quaker, infantile spiritual state, I knew there were words waiting just beyond my grasp, calling me to be silent, to listen intently, to focus inwardly.

A number of us from Hopewell Centre had the chance to participate in a workshop with Daniel Snyder last August at Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Annual Sessions, and he called us into more intentional awareness of coming into the presence of "the infinite lover of our souls."   It was such a simple, yet such a profound experience, that I left that workshop wanting to teach others how close our access to God is.

"How could you not want to be in a relationship with the infinite lover of your soul." 

As we speed up our lives and struggle to keep pace with the every growing demands on our attention, God exists beyond an artificial veil we construct, calling to us as if through a mist.  Without some daily practice, it is almost impossible to lift that veil, to return to closeness to the Light.

In the workshop, Daniel Snyder invited us to partake of a simple process:  Show up, Tell the Truth, Listen.  I was amazed at the diversity of experience shared by the participants.  Each of us merged Daniel's directions into our own basic understanding of our inner process.  It was a process for returning our awareness to the One who is always Present.  Therefore, as we shared with each other, we each brought our own unique understanding to the group, enriching and encouraging each other.

Show up:  I felt myself walking into the light, palms up to receive it, basking in the warmth and calming strength of that moment.

Tell the truth:  I found myself asking, "Is this the whole truth?  What is beneath this?  And beneath that?  And under that?  Deeper and deeper, desiring to share my soul with the ultimate lover.

Listen: Basking in the warm, healing light, I could only listen deeply, waiting like the child at the foot of Jesus, for the comfort, the wisdom, the guidance.

What a gift!  I who have struggled over the years with the remnants of my programmed protestant background, who have felt the practiced prayers of my childhood to fall short of my need, resting simply and surely in the presence of the divine, feeling loved, cherished and valued.  This was my experience in that workshop, and I have returned to it over and over since.

In the months since the workshop, I have understood texts like the Song of Solomon in a new and deeply moving way.  I have entered a new depth in relationship with the Infinite Unknown.  I have understood Jung's belief that God grows through relationship with our incarnate selves.
If God is the infinite divine lover of my soul (and yours) then my own ability to love and serve knows no bounds.

My ability to move through life serenely and gracefully lies in direct relationship to my ability to lift the veil that separates me from relationship with God.  The God of my understand waits patiently for my return.  A feeling of real need is reason enough to pray.

14 October 2009

A Spiritual Path for Today --About the Children

Last week Hopewell Centre MM hosted the first of four talks on "The Quaker Way:  A Spiritual Path for Today."  It was the culmination of six months of planning and talking amongst ourselves about what we wanted to present to our community about who we are.  It is also the final series of events in our year long celebration of our 275th Anniversary of being a recognized meeting in the Shenandoah Valley.  The event was well attended by both community members and Friends, and there was wonderful dialogue between us all.

My own surprise was over the joy I felt just talking about my faith to "strangers."  We are so careful about not proselytizing that I realized there is seldom a time like this when I am called to share the story of my spiritual journey and what brought me to realize I was a Friend.  Last night's topic was "How I came and why I stayed."  Three of us shared our stories for just a few minutes each, following a brief 15 minute worship. 

I was excited that some people had already sought out reading material, either on the web or in print, before they even heard about our talks.  Most were curious about the peace testimony and what one does to resolve the conflicts one might feel over serving vs. not serving in a war. There were the usual curiosities about our manner of unprogrammed worship, whether we are Christians, and what relevance we give the Bible.

The questions that stood out most were related to the children.  Our crowd was middle aged to older, and among these attenders there was a genuine concern about the spiritual condition of our youth in America.  A few questions were asked about how we "attract" youth to our services.  More were asked about how a youngster or teenager sits for an hour of worship and whether there would be much draw for a child here.  They seemed incredulous at the fact that children would be interested in our manner of worship.

We explained the experiences we'd had with introducing children to worship, and the inner discipline that is gained from a lifetime of learning to be quiet listeners.  We talked about the emphasis on living out one's faith and how that impacts our families.

The responses, from our members and from others in the community who'd encountered our youth, either from our meeting or from Camp Opequon, were wonderful!  A young woman who worked at the local pool commented, "You can always tell these children.  You know there is a way with children today...well, these children are just...so...different.  They are not demanding, they are....polite!"  She went on to say that they always welcome our children back.

Another person remarked about the campers being present in Meeting for Worship and being able to sit for an entire hour, without parents, and without incident!  We talked about how our children participate in causes of their interest, express their individuality artistically and creatively, and are taught to stand up for what they believe.

We gave the example of when there was a conflict in our meeting, and our Children's Business Meeting sent a letter to the adults:  "We don't know why you are making such a big deal out of things.  We are over it, and it was about us.  We need our adults to move on."  We told the story of the Young Friends taking a stand when Lamar Matthews was discriminated against at the Trienniel.  

I don't know why this interchange took me so by surprise.  Of course our youth are the answer to our future.  How can we really talk about a path into the twenty first century without acknowledging the legacy our young people will carry, to live out our testimonies of peace and simplicity in our increasingly complex and selfish world.  

It is not that the message of Friends has changed, it is that the need for it has increased.
Having the opportunity to talk to newcomers about our community standing as a balance for an indivualistic culture and even more, offering alternatives and solutions for living in our world, offered inspiration to us all.   

08 October 2009

If you feed a Quaker a mystery...

I confess, I'm a closet mystery novel reader.  I devour them at the rate of one or two a week.  It's gotten so that I can scarcely find a good novel in this genre that meets my criteria.  You see, though I crave a good mystery, it must be written by a good author, who will teach me something and have a plot that is complex enough that I cannot figure it out in the first two chapters.  And I pride myself on figuring them out, fast.

Over the years I've learned alot about my favorite place, the desert Southwest, through the novels of Tony Hillerman, Aimee Thurlo, Margaret Coel and a host of others.  It's a way for me to travel vicariously.  If I pick up a bit of Native American lore along the way, so much the better.

To feed my fantasy of owning a bookstore and herb shop, I read Susan Wittig Albert, who has for years been writing mysteries from the perspective of just such a woman, who excels as a sleuth as well.  For my forensic psychology tastes, there is Jonathan Kellerman, author of the Alex Delaware series of mysteries.

Since I was a little child, I have used reading as the ultimate escape; a vacation without leaving home.  I'm blessed with a vivid imagination, and movies often leave me flat if I've read the book first, because they cannot come close to what my mind can conjure up!

Don't get me wrong, I read my share of Quaker classics and modern non-fiction.  I read the Bible and other spiritual teachings (notably Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly).  But for sheer entertainment, give me a mystery, thick with metaphor and dripping with hidden innuendo.

There's only one place where my Quakerism and my pleasure reading really cross, and that's in Irene Allen's mysteries.  Irene Allen is actually Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, who is a retired faculty member from the Geology Dept of Washington State University.  This itself is a fact that was hidden from me until recently.

The creation of the character Elizabeth Elliott, a Quaker elder from Cambridge, Mass meeting is nothing less than genius.  Through Elizabeth, and her incredibly hapless congregation of Friends, we learn just how Friends live in the modern world.  In her books, I have read about Friends' stance on the War Tax, how we get along with conflicts in the Quaker community, how everyday decisions are made, and how to conduct one's self in public. 

Today in my morning meditation, Elizabeth came to visit me once more, as I sat with my cat contemplating how to proceed in some decisions about my work and spiritual life.  Countless times (but not enough...there are only 4 books) I have sat, as Elizabeth does, in the sun, with my cat at my arm, considering some decision and how I should proceed.  I don't have the wisdom of years that Elizabeth (Kirsten?) does, but I borrow from the elders I have met over the years.

If I want an easy way to show people how and who we Quakers are, I often find myself recommending these dry, humorous novels.  Without even realizing, under the guise of good entertainment, readers will finding themselves drenched in Quaker tradition and language.  Through Elizabeth's eyes, outsiders can learn how decisions are made and ethical issues addressed.

If you haven't read these juicy little morsels yet, you should.  You'll have to search for them in used books stores, but they are usually easy to find.  You too can vicariously enjoy being an amateur sleuth, through the adventures of Elizabeth Elliott.

Nothing like a good mystery to replenish the drained batteries of the soul!

05 October 2009

Call for the Question

Suppose you walked into a party, and the host said to you: "Folks, there's only one rule for tonight's festivities. You may ask all the questions you want, but the only statements you can make will be in response to a question.  In other words, you may not start conversations with statements about yourself or your observations, unless a question has been put to you.  I will be circulating among you to be certain that you do not digress.  And please, allow a little time to unfold between your responses; don't be afraid to take that moment to allow yourself to digest the question before you respond.  Have fun, and don't be afraid to ask any question."

Ponder this a moment.  Really allow yourself to imagine a past situation you were in, be it a social event or a meeting, and imagine all the characters and how they approach you, and see yourself in the situation, mainly asking questions (queries) and only responding to the ones that are put to you.  Drop your expectations of the event, and allow the situation to unfold.

Isn't this the quaker practice of worship sharing taken to a new limit?  How do your imagine your own behavior might change were you prompted to view all of your interactions from the perspective of worship sharing and to focus on the questions rather than the answers?  Is this the manner in which you go out to greet the world?

These are some of the queries that surfaced as I entered the Visioning Retreat at Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM), even before we began the actual process.  Thanks to the creative genius of Michael Marquardt, we were introduced to a new way to think and work on 8 challenges that the staff of BYM put before us.  We broke into small groups, each one addressing a query, and set upon our task.  

I was surprised to see how uncomfortable we seasoned Friends were with a process that we would view as a part of our core, when it was put into this context.  It tuned me into my own presumptiveness when I come into a situation like this retreat:  that I am already primed with ideas and agendas that I might not even consciously be aware of, and that are certainly not seasoned in the Light.

Michael Marquardt is a professor of Human Resource Development and International Relations at George Washington University and President of the World Institute for Action Learning, the organization that teaches "Action Learning," the process described above. (http://wial.org,     http://www.gwu.edu/~elliott/faculty/marquardt.cfm) He is a Quaker and a member of Herndon Meeting.  To my knowledge, this was his first time bringing his cutting edge process to his own "family" of Friends.  Michael is like so many other Friends over time, who have quietly integrated their own manner of living as a Friend into their business practices.  In this case, Michael has actually taken his translation of a part of our Quaker process into the secular world of business, across continents and around the world.  As one who has often pondered what impact Quakers might have on global decision making, this was very exciting to learn!

It was delightful to be called to accountability to live our own manner so succinctly.  In each group were coaches whose job was to keep the time frame, help with clarity, and hold us to the task of the day:   to consider the query and utilize questions to creatively move through the process of responding to that challenge.  Of course, being Friends and comfortable with queries ourselves we had some questions for Michael too:  "Can we have a period of worship?"  "Can we redefine the question?"  "What happens in the executive world, do people end up taking a vote?"  (Michael assured us that in all of his years working with this method, no one has ever come to a vote.)

I'll have another post on the actual challenges that were put to us to work on, but for now I'll just focus on the process.  While Michael was encouraging us to think outside of the box, I was aware of how much he had done just that in his development of the Action Learning method of problem solving. 

What's fun about an experience like this is the personal awareness it calls us to.  When what may be our usual practices are put into a different box, or called a different name, we may fail to recognize them as our own.  The difficult part of this is how we may struggle with the "new" concept, failing to see where it fits in our own toolbox of constructs.  The titillating part is in being called to look at our own process with new eyes, and see the way that process then reflects back through the rest of our being.

In our group there was a bit of a struggle to decide if we were doing things the "right" way.  We wondered if we should redefine the question as we went along, rather than just living the one we had.  We wanted to inject our own ideas into the mix rather than stay on the task of answering the ensuing questions put to each of us or the group as a whole.  We balked at trusting the process.  Some of us had to put our own agendas aside to be truly present.

To be fair, we were doing a condensed version, scheduled to fit in this 5 hour retreat.  This did put a bit of pressure on us to move at a pace much faster than our usual Quaker amble.  I believe that the whole concept of Action Learning is to move beyond the linear model of thinking into a more circular one, and this is probably a struggle for many of us even in a more accomodating time frame.

It was a breath of fresh air in what could have been an arduous process.  As we laughed and wrangled our way through, the time passed incredibly quickly.  I noticed no yawning or dozing.  Some of the ideas that rose to the surface were solutions we are used to hearing, but many were new observations or calls for a different approach.  

As I left the retreat, feeling energized, my mind whirling, I wondered what the continuation of the process will look like.  Will the new thoughts or out of the box ideas be raised to the top, so that they can be heard?  Will the spirit of ongoing revelation continue as we strive to bring vision to reality?  Will there be the opportunity for further use of this process to move us from suggestion to implementation?  Will the staid be able to move aside for the creative new?

I have no answers, only more questions.

02 October 2009

Friends as a Corrective for Culture

I'm always grateful when reading something, be it a blog, or a classic text, or the Bible, or any other spiritual writing, wakes me up from the slumber of apathy or indifference that comes over me from time to time. I find the structure of society lends itself to such numbness. Multi-tasking is the new opiate of the people. At least I can say it is for me. If the demands of our society keep us so busy that we cannot think, what is to become of us?

I'm going on record against it. Nothing good can become of dividing one's self in six different directions at once. What can be said for transporting one's children across town to their myriad of activities while conference calling with one's staff, yelling food orders into the microphone at the fast food place, while contemplating the next move to be made in one's approach to their client. It's an accident waiting to happen, literally and figuratively.

How can this multi-tasking ability be considered such a positive talent to possess, when it means quite frankly, that no one gets my undivided attention? This is the antithesis of how I want my life to be. I suspect that is true for many others as well, but most of the time we are moving so quickly, we don't have the time to stop and regroup.

I was reading Plainly Pagan's post A Quaker Mask of Respectability, when I woke up. Her call to others to recognize her spiritual need for connection spoke to me, and led me to the place of this blog. It lead me directly to the history of my own same feelings. How long I have wandered in the wilderness, silently crying for recognition. I honor her ability to speak aloud.

Everything that being a Friend has led me to has been counter-intuitive to the prevailing culture of individualism.

Where my society would call me to be a staunch individualist in all areas of my personal and working life, my faith calls me to be a member of community. Where my government calls me to war to protect the peace, my beliefs tell me that peace cannot be borne out of violence. When culture tells me that I must protect what I have and hold on to it, lest I be taken advantage of, my conscience tells me that if I leave my door unlocked and give away what I have, there will be no way my enemy can take advantage of me.

Still it is hard to live counter to the prevailing culture, in fact, it is almost impossible. Living in this dichotomy, most of us strike our own level of comfort or balance in the midst. We may function in the society to the degree we must, and end up closeting some of our beliefs to be shared only with a close few. I believe it's fairly common for some of us to throw our beliefs overboard for a period early in life, in order to strike out and make our way in the wilderness of adult life. Perhaps we settle for a moderate religious life, when we begin to have children and want them to have the "right" upbringing. Some of us come to Quaker Meeting on Sunday, desperate for the hour of quiet and the chance to shed off the weight of the garments of our outer lives, then hastily returning to the demands of the day..

I'm grateful that not everyone feels such a need to pull on the garments of our society; not everyone rejects the inner pull toward community. We all exist along a continuum that reflects the paradox of our need to fit and our need to follow our beliefs. Those who stand in the place of holding their belief up for others to see, who are not able to hide their Light under a bushel, make clear the path for those of us not able.

I'm struck that by the period of late middle age, even those of us who have had to sacrifice our "idealism" have begun to search more ardently to find real meaning for our lives, and we have begun to re-awaken to the lofty ideas of our youth, of living more and more in accordance with our values. It's appropriate at this time, because many of us are also being freed from the bondage of daily work through retirement. Without the demands of providing for our families by working in the outside culture, we are now again free as we were as adolescents, to bring our creative, spiritual thoughts into reality.

This individualistic, multi-tasking, fast-paced world does not make it easy for quiet faiths like the Society of Friends to survive. In a world where loud and fast is the norm, we are quiet and slow.
Where being a staunch individualist is the highest cultural value, we base our actions and decisions on the sense of the whole. Yet it is precisely this that we can offer to the seeker, the unquiet one.

Our Society is the corrective for the frailties of the secular society. Where society breaks families and friends apart, we gather them. Where the wheels of industry grind loud and hard, we offer solace and silence. When the long hours and hard work deprive the individual of energy, we offer the place to recharge their inner batteries. Don't we?

So many an attender has commented to me after worship on how inviting the silence was, how there was something they had not felt before in both the quiet and the messages. Many have said they felt a Presence there, or felt the spirits of those come before.

We need to be certain that in our meetings, we do carry sense of Presence forth into the world, and certainly into the time surrounding worship. Are we greeting worshipers as they arrive in a spirit of love and grace? What are we doing to help our community to incorporate and carry the peace they gain from worship into the rest of their lives? Are we risking to be vulnerable amongst each other, so that the Spirit may flourish and grow among us?

Too often I hear people say that they wished they could participate in a meeting activity but were too busy to stay or come back. What are we doing to insure that the activities offered in second hour or religious education are meaningful and relevant to the needs of our community? Do we send our Friends forth into the coming week carrying something that will uphold and uplift them in their daily life?

I have no doubt that we are offering something of dire need in this lightning-paced technology-laden world of the twenty-first century. My own meeting seems to be growing with new attenders. Our anniversary celebration of this year has given us cause to speak out, and we have chosen to use this time to invite the curious and the seeking. I see that the task before our meeting is not just to attract those travelers to us, but to nourish and sustain them in ways they are not finding in their everyday world.

In my own life, I see that this calls me to a new place too. Like those travelers, I came to the Society of Friends seeking, starving and stretched beyond my limits. Slowly, as I worshiped among
Friends, I came to see that I was a Friend long before arrived, but had not until now found my home.
I did go through a period after a few years where I began to question whether Quakers could meet my needs. I was again feeling parched.

Thankfully, I had been given the gift of silent worship and prayer, which I now knew was available to me in any time and place. Here I learned the true meaning of Fox' words, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition." Through the nourishment of the Light, I also came to see that I had to ask what I could offer, allowing God to work through me.

When I began to ask what I had to give, and I began to surrender to the power of Spirit working through me, I found that I indeed had not come to Friends by accident. I had been Led. But what was more amazing than opening to that leading, was finding that I really did have something to offer. The real gift was not in what I had come to receive, but in finding what I had come to give, most of which I am still uncovering.

If we are, as the Society of Friends, to serve as that corrective for our prevailing culture, then we must be willing to make ourselves available to be a growing community: What have you come to give to your community? What part of the whole are you holding? Would you deny to your Friends that part of wholeness that only you can bestow?

The paradox of community is the age old lesson, that it is in the giving that you truly are fulfilled.

17 September 2009


This is a guest blog by my dear friend and member of Hopewell Centre, R. Dixon (Dick) Bell.
I have been enjoying sharing spiritual stories and journey with Dick this summer, and I am sure that you will savor this fine piece of prose. I have printed it here with his permission:

Hopewell’s 275th

Meets My Five

One man’s intersection with the Religious Society of Friends

And Hopewell Centre meeting

R. Dixon Bell

August 8, 2009

It looms above the interstate, a white, steel truss symbol towering in the daylight, reflecting a rainbow of rolling colors broadcast upon it at night. One of the world’s great icons, it shocks the traveler with its suddenness and its immensity. It occupies a rough construction site where closer attention reveals a faded sign promising a future home for believers. Activity there is sporadic and rare. The icon, white, steel, and illuminated, is a cross.

A scant mile away to the southwest lies Hopewell Centre meeting house, hard off the left shoulder of a traveler going west on Hopewell Road. One could easily miss it. I did for years. There is no cross. The meeting has sustained the spiritual needs of its attenders and members for 275 years. For all that time, continually in use, Hopewell has been the home of the northern Shenandoah Valley’s alternately ebbing and growing, always changing population of the members of the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers. In addition to no cross, inside there are no copes or chasubles, no creeds. There is no altar, only oyster white uneven walls, enclosing a square of numerous, plain wooden pews. A large, canted gallery of benches, now abandoned, occupies the southern and western walls, recalling days when Hopewell was the hub of a widespread scattering of Quaker meetings, which have largely disappeared as the pulses of Friends they sheltered moved south and then west to carry the dream and witness of Quaker worship across a continent.

--- * ---

As is customary after meetings for worship, the presider rose and asked if there were any visitors. I rose even though it was not my first visit to Olympia meeting in Washington State. I gave my name and added, “…and I carry greetings from Hopewell Centre meeting in Clearbrook, Virginia.” I was answered with a chorus of attentive smiles and nods, a few quiet ‘ohs,’ and the sporadic rustlings of attenders turning to their neighbors, clarifying in whispers what they thought I had said. The presider boomed in response, “And carry our greetings back to Hopewell.” I acknowledged him with a smile and sat down. The announcements ended, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I was met by a woman with a large, white shock of hair surrounding a broad, bespectacled face of the type I associate with successful and wise pioneers. “I’m Dolly Yates,” she asked, “and did you say you were from Hopewell?”


“My family went through Hopewell on their way west. We settled in North Dakota. I met my husband, who is from Montana. We ended up here in Olympia.” The short biography finished, Dolly got right to the main reason she had tapped my shoulder, “Have you read the Hopewell history? The one they wrote for their bicentennial?”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t really know they had one.”

Dolly promised she’d get it to me, and I experienced a short time later the irony of reading the entire history of Hopewell for the first time a continent away. The 1934 history contained all of the story of how Quakers from Pennsylvania moved to establish a meeting close to Opequon creek. Where the boundaries were. Some of the cast of characters. Therein I found my distant ancestor ‘Elder’ John Gerrard, after whom a nearby village was named. The book left me with an overarching sense of endurance and action: Hopewell from its start was full of activity, a refuge for the faithful, a continual home where all of the Friends attending gathered in worship.

One of my favorite persons in the world, 95-year old Harold Carson, whom I met through Barb Leedy, fellow Quaker and dearest of friends, lives in an assisted living facility near Olympia. I once remarked to poet Jean Loman, another Olympian, that Harold epitomized for me the definition of ‘weighty Quaker.’ She laughed in agreement when I said, “You can almost see the Light bend around him when he speaks.” Harold, so wise and so grounded, lives in that delicious spot, almost Eden, that is both heaven and earth. He speaks in stories, stories that flag reality and our lives in it through metaphor. I am always tired after I’ve listened to Harold’s careful stories. It takes real work to process his meaning; four to five levels is par for each delightful course. I always feel when I leave him that I have just sat at the feet of Jesus. Harold charged me to search the Hopewell history for record of his family names of Carson and Walton and report back.

I did. After I told him what I had found, I mentioned how surprised I was to see two Quakers in Olympia who knew so much about Hopewell a continent away. He said, “The name of Hopewell is well known to us. It is one of the mother meetings of all Friends.” Not for the first time I left Harold with shivers in my spine.

--- * ---

It must have been a hard climb. Hundreds of meters up a hill. If my research is correct, sometime June or after, 1652. The famous suit of leather. A figure never referred to as svelte—or athletic. Still a young man though, again if research is correct, at 28. A young man who realized, as Robert Griswold so beautifully said in Pendle Hill pamphlet “Creeds and Quakers,” that “…Faith is ‘the spiritual apprehension of divine truth or intangible realities.’ It is founded on the experience of Divine reality.” The experience that each Quaker seeks in the silence. The Light that lit George Fox so intently that day that he saw a great vision unfold before him. The vision of multitudes, vast and stretching to the end of sight and the end of time. And so, there on Pendle Hill, the world opened before the eyes of George Fox. The children of God as one with the Light Within. No words could name it. No words could find it. It is that most comfortable and wonderful condition that can only be found in silence. These times, all times, are sacred times. The then defiant notion that our portion is (again from Griswold) “the Divine Within that speaks to us: Truth,’ ‘Word,’ ‘Seed,’ ‘Power of God,’ ‘Witness of God,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Wisdom of God,’ ‘Light Within’ and ‘Light of Christ,’ ‘that which is Pure,’ ‘Measure.’”

A host of terms. One truth. Not unlike the Buddhists 999,999 names of God.

--- * ---

My students love the story. I often use it to illustrate the philosophy underlining the Age of Transcendentalism. It’s after the Compromise of 1850. Congress has enacted the toughest iteration of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allows ‘independent agents’ to act for ‘property owners’ (slaveholders) and for ‘local authorities’ (deputies, constables, and sheriffs) in conducting reasonable searches for runaway slaves. In fact these ‘agents’ were most often the worst kind of thug, commonly called a ‘Paddy roller,’ referring to another of America’s then lesser classes (I don’t think the name in any way meant that the ‘agents’ were pushing the Irish around for pleasant rides in strollers). Numerous accounts show these ‘rollers’ picking up any black they could get their hands on and dragging that person off to a life of slavery—all with the protection and blessing of federal law. The other part of the cast is Quakers. The kids know that Quakers don’t lie. Ever. That they mostly stand up and protect the slaves, that most are outraged by the notion of slavery.

So the scene is set for a ride on America’s Underground Railroad. Fugitive slaves reach a ‘station’ north of the Ohio River. They are ushered to a hidden refuge.

A thunderous pounding on the door.

The mistress of the house.


Answers the door.

“Ma’am, lookin’ for runaway slaves.” Picture the men on the panting horses. Their aspects.

And the Quaker woman, unarmed, filling her doorway, with a forthright and truthful light, looks right at the lead ‘roller,’ and says, “Sir, there are no slaves in this house.”

I’d like to think that the discussion that ensues is exactly what Jefferson had in mind when he advocated a thorough education for every citizen of the republic. The consensus always is that the Quaker woman did not lie, that she served the ‘highest’ law, and that technically she may have been a criminal, but she was not a ‘law-breaker’ in the eyes of the world.

The history teacher part of me hungers for a name, a place, a time that I could ground the story. But the Quaker part of me knows the story is true, that it was repeated numerous times, with numerous actors, in numerous places.

How many times do we look at American history, at the great moments, and find standing there a Quaker? Or Quaker practice? Or Quaker ideals?

I look at Hopewell cemetery and wonder how many of those simple stones honor the graves of those who were called slaves, immutable testament to the fact that every Quaker knew there was that of God in everyone. That the then law was wrong. That one day the law would be like her. Or him.

Another part of Foxe’s vast multitude.


--- * ---

Be no more than God hath made thee.

Give over thine own willing;

Give over thine own running;

Give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing,

And sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart,

And let that grow in thee, and be in thee,

And breathe in thee, and act in thee,

And thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord

Knows that, and loves and owns that,

And will lead it to the inheritance of life,

Which is his portion.

Isaac Pennington

When I first heard Pennington’s words, I was electrified. My friend Barb tried gainfully to recite them but quickly bogged down. “Why can’t I memorize them?” she blurted in exasperation.

I could well sympathize with her. I can’t memorize them either. Like Harold’s stories, they girdle heaven and earth and strain the mere meanings of words, flouting their small origins. I have read these words hundreds of times now and humbly submit that I am just glimpsing the fullness of their meaning, these words captured and configured like a constellation in the genius of Pennington’s poetic mind, words that speak to our deepest selves.

Words that came from the Light.

--- * ---

Some of my happiest moments have been in the silence. From the first times I have experienced Quaker worship, I have experienced the silence as majestic, alive, personal and universal, my portal to the Light. I am always amazed at how swiftly the hour flies and how richly that hour seems spent. I eagerly anticipate it and profoundly miss it when circumstances and schedules lead to me missing meeting. For me the gathered silence is palpable, as deeply part of life as breath. The confluences during worship often amaze me. Once when I was thinking about the delight of humor, another worshipper arose and said, “I’ve been thinking that surely Jesus had a great sense of humor, a hearty laugh…” Sometimes an image appears. At others a voice. I have had messages ring into my head in iambic pentameter. One so moved me with its surpassing beauty I asked the ‘Voice’ if I should stand and share it.

“It was for thee alone.”

Though I could easily type the message (for I have never forgotten it), I feel that that would be the surest way to trivialize it, to move it to a less sacred realm, to not honor that which gave it to me. I’m sure there are those who would explain these moments as a peculiar psychological condition with its own Latinate name. Biologists would explain it through a specific segment of the genome. Neurologists would cite a mixture of certain neuro-transmitters. Of course, there are those who would snort and merely mouth, “Whacked.” Margaret Fells knew right where it came from.

Every Quaker does too.

For me it takes real courage to speak in meeting. It’s not easy. That’s the test: if I can overcome my own immense fears of speaking in public, I know I’ve got a job to do and do it. While the manufacturing of the words is a labor and the breath to say them bought dearly, the satisfaction I feel when finished is felt in the foundation of my being.

Having practiced meditation for much of my life, I find it easy to slip into a deep state and often do so at home. I always profit from these times. But they do not compare with the presence and intensity of the silence of worship. I’m convinced that it is the gathering of all of us, our energy, which adds so much force to the moment.

When two or three are gathered in my name

Once years ago after vacuuming the front room, I turned off the vacuum cleaner to find the television playing. PBS was airing a documentary on an order of nuns, Catholic, which had survived hundreds of years in the wilds of, all places, Wales. There were three left: two ancient nuns and one young novice. The film showed the novice tending their garden with the elder sisters sitting and watching. The announcer was trying to interview them, asking them questions like, “How old is your order?” “Are you self-sufficient?” “How have your numbers changed?” The novice answered each query patiently. The two elder sisters smiled and adopted a distinct air of being tickled. They’d put handkerchiefs to their mouths from time to time to mask a laugh. The novice with her body language finally indicated that she needed to get back to her weeding. The announcer was losing his interview. So he upped the ante. “What do you do?”

The elder sisters laughed out loud, so tickled they dare not look at each other. The novice rose, looked him squarely in the eye, and said, “We pray.” A dramatic pause. “For the whole world.” The elder sisters, now past being charmed, were wide-eyed in affirmation.

Mistaking the tittering as an invitation to humor, the announcer followed up with the most sarcastic voice he could muster as the camera panned in on the faces of the three, “The whole world?”

The elder sisters practically fell from their chairs in renewed laughter. The novice stifled a look that said, “That is the silliest question I’ve ever heard.”

She barked, “The whole world.

You. Me. The Russians. The children who are hungry. Northern Ireland. The arms race. Peace.

We have more than enough to keep us busy.”

The announcer was totally out of their sphere of communication. “But just the three of you?”

The elder sisters adopted an “Oh, poor dear” look. The novice smiled and with a nod ended the interview.

Days later Gorbachev and Reagan emerged from a room in Iceland and announced that they nearly had reached an accord to eliminate nuclear weapons. Talking Heads quickly cited things like Pershing missiles, cruise missiles, and SDI for the now evident super power thaw. I could think of nothing but the three sisters in Wales. Not for the first time I felt that prayer had changed the world.

You can take your 11 trillion dollar buildup of arms; I’ll take the three sisters any day.

So I see meetings on First Days around the world where a few or many are gathered as spiritual engines fed by the Light, doing God’s business, seeing to the world’s needs.

--- * ---

James Cosby stood at the rise of meeting and said, “I hate to say this, but I’ve been looking at the two trees outside the building and they are rotten.” A discussion ensued. A bit of discovery took place. The sense of the meeting was lets trim out the bad for now, investigate a bit further, and take down the trees when it’s clear they’re dangerous. Not that much later Linda Wilk noticed after the first trimming more sagging and movement. “It’s worse than I thought,” she said. Initially I had felt how sad it was that these lovely trees were dying.

Then I had a dream.

And in the dream I saw us sitting in a beautiful circle; our heads were still with the silence of worship. The circle was at Hopewell, right at the heart of where we sit now. Except we were outside. The building was gone. We were surrounded by sunlight, green grass, and the sheltering of ordinary trees.

I understood.

“The trees are rotten,” James had said.

Of course they are. We had planted them. Though I was not alive when they were planted I’m sure I would have dug the holes to do so and accounted my deed very good. Ash trees are notorious for inner rot and breakage.

And I reexamined my love of the building, of the stone and wood of Hopewell, and saw that that too was vain.

The temples of Hopewell meeting have been and are her people, the vessels which hold the Light and its memory, the voices which broadcast it out to the world, and the beings that witness it with their deeds.

That has been her past. That is her present. That will be her future.

--- * ---

I could name dozens of Hopewell members and attenders. To me, each one is extraordinary. They are men and women, girls and boys I am honored to acknowledge as Friends. If I undertake the vanity of naming them, I shall forget some I’m sure, offending them and doing the named a disservice. So I will pay homage to all with a story of one.

Her name was Virginia

I had been ‘clerk’ of the Peace and Social Justice committee. We had never had a meeting because the three of us lived so far apart and had such conflicting schedules. Every business meeting I would intone, “No report.”

Until finally my own pride got the better of me: I was ashamed I had had ‘nothing’ to report. So I decided one business meeting I would share a correspondence I had had with Senator Rockefeller over the Downing Street memo, a record of a British cabinet meeting that seemed to say ‘the Americans promise if we join up, they’ll supply the reason for war with Iraq.’ The actual wording is much more indirect and inconclusive, but the senator who then sat on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, seemed more than happy to share my concern and give voice to some of his very own. His answer to my letter ran over four pages. I was quite impressed with the senator as a responsive public servant and gratified that both of us seemed on the same side of the peace debate.

So when the time came for Peace and Social Justice to report I jumped up, said we had not met, but that I had had this correspondence. I gave a brief report and sat down, at first feeling quite satisfied. Then my conscience began to gnaw on me. Why was I representing a private correspondence as something to note in the meeting’s minutes? How had I advanced the business of the meeting? Why was the sound of my own voice more important than the simple, plain truth? Before I had completely hoisted myself on my own petard, the meeting ended.

Virginia Riley rose and worked her cane hurriedly as she came to my side.

By that time I could barely bring myself to look at her.

“Dick Bell!” Her smile and beatific demeanor immediately connected with me, dispelling my anxiety.

“I am so proud of you.”

“Thank you.”

An abashed smile then an animated breath. The kind of loving smile the elder nuns had had. “Writing a senator and all.”

Virginia had redeemed me.

She had ignored my intent and heard the message on a deeper level, a level she wanted to share with me.

I cannot tell you what her sincere kindness has come to mean to me.

--- *---

Elkanah Fawcett, Carol Melby’s ancestor, every First Day rode his horse across Frederick County so that he could attend meeting. Households along the way claimed that you could set your clock by Elkanah’s passage. He was that true to his practice. I’m sure he never drew attention to himself, just concentrating on his journey ahead, but everybody knew about him and who he was.

I take part of his route every day to work. Because when I worked out the best way to go to meeting, I found that I had also discovered the best way to work. Now I travel the interstate for the shortest possible time, and enter it with the white truss cross behind me.

I often pause in my journey and detour around Hopewell. For a few moments I sit in the driveway. The silence there is lovely. I invariably smile.

I am at peace.

All of the words ever spoken have died, their echoes faded at last to silence. They are momentary things.

The silence endures.