“Who Against Hope Believed in Hope,” by Fritz Weiss

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 22, 2023

Romans 4:18: In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.”

Last Wednesday I learned that the theme of the upcoming Yearly Meeting session in Cuba this February has a theme drawn from Romans 4: 18.  I realized that this is in fact an accurate summary of the theme of this message and it is one more example of the mysterious working of the Spirit.

This message is a personal reflection coming from the challenge I have felt in recent years to live in an attitude of hope.

I have struggled to continue to hold on to hope during the past years. It is not a new insight that one can lose hope in this world of brokenness and  troubles. And it is also true that living in the awareness of God’s presence should be a source for hope.  That hope is one of the fruits of faith and an essential attitude to be, in fact, the light of God in the world.

In the prayer attributed to St, Francis, there is a list of paired attitudes including “Where there is despair, let me find hope.”  To be honest, in the face of climate change I feel despair, in the face of the politics in the country, I feel despair, in the face of entrenched and persistent structural racism and inequality, I feel despair.  And then there is the pandemic which has separated me from community that has often connected me to the joy of God’s presence in my life.  

My meditation on hope begins with recognizing that hope often is attached to specific outcomes – hope as a form of intercessory prayer.  I hope (and pray) for peace I hope (and pray) for integrity in our politics, I hope (and pray) for healing, for the safety of my children, for relief for the captive and good news for the poor, for the climate, for justice.  

I recognize this kind of hope has an unspoken assumption of both power and privilege – these are outcomes I deserve and over which I expect to have influence. Hope is an expression of autonomy and that this is a part of the reason that faith has a hard time holding on to this hope – that that system of power and privilege is what we are called from not what we are called to. We are called to a different relationship with the world,  I am reminded that in a message that Francisco Burgos brought to Durham a couple of years ago he said “Hope attached to outcome is privilege”

And I recognize that when the outcomes I hope for do not happen, there is an invitation to despair. This kind of hope opens the door to being broken hearted.

Walter Wink, when talking about Christian non-violence as taught by Jesus, illustrated that Jesus was not talking about a binary choice between war or  peace.  Jesus  was talking about a third way – about empowered non-violent resistance – about what early Friends called the “Lambs War”.  That the binary choice was a false choice.  That faith opened unexpected doors to unexpected ways of being powerful in the world without being violent.

The Hope of Faith is different than the Hope of desire.

I would like to share a few threads of what I found over the past few months, and in which I have found a way to be hopeful while feeling despair. 

Veronice Miles on the BTS podcast “climate changed” in the episode “If I can’t make a difference than what do I do”, talked about hope as an “inward yearning for the kingdom – (the beloved community (MLK)”  – this yearning requires imagination to yearn for something that we have never experienced, something extraordinary, something barely known- what Brueggemann called a Prophetic imagination. It seems to me that this inward yearning is our part of seeking the inward light. 

Peterson Toscano talks about “Embodied hope”  – hope that comes not from our mind but that is felt in our bodies – the lift in one’s heart, one’s body when we are surprised by beauty or grace.  This is the hope of our hands and our back – the hope expressed in what we do.

Jen Wilkin in an essay on the Sermon on the Mount, talks about Jesus teaching us to obey – and knowing that we can obey and through this obedience therein lies hope.   And Jesus  is clear that obedience is to love.

The prayer Jesus taught begins with two elements – first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”  It begins with our embracing of God’s will.  What matters is not our hoping or thinking or desiring but obedience and then the prayer continues with “Give us this day our daily bread, Forgive us our trespasses, Lead us from evil”. These are demands – we are taught to both embrace God’s will, and to demand our daily bread.

In the face of broken heartedness as an outcome of the Hope of Desire, I am trying to embrace the  Hope of Faith.  A Hope not attached to outcomes but to doing, hope not attached to wishing but to demanding,  not to knowing, but imagining, and not to thinking but feeling. Hope not as the opposite of despair, but a third way of empowered prophetic surrender.  Hope not as a choice but as the path.  

Finally Wendell Berry in one of his Sabbath Poems says “ What I fear most is despair for the world and for us; [despair which results in] forever less of beauty, silence, open air, gratitude, unbidden happiness, affection, unegotistical desire.”   Finding a way of living in that faithful stance of hope is also finding a way to experience “forever more of beauty, silence, open air, gratitude, unbidden happiness, affection, unegotistical desire.”  

“Freedom Over Me,” by Ashley Bryan

For January 15, 2023, the message at Durham Friends Meeting was a reading, by Ingrid Chalufour, of a book by Ashley Bryan, Freedom Over Me.

From the publisher’s website

Newbery Honor Book
Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book

Using original slave auction and plantation estate documents, Ashley Bryan offers a moving and powerful picture book that contrasts the monetary value of a person with the priceless value of life experiences and dreams that a slave owner could never take away.

Here are the cover and one page from the book:

“The Struggle of a Lifetime,” by Leslie Manning


The January 8, 2023 message at Durham Friends Meeting was given by Leslie Manning. The message, on “The Struggle of a Lifetime,” revolved around these passages, one from W. E. B. Dubois, and one from Rep. John Lewis

From W.E.B. Du Bois: “It is the wind and the rain, O God, the cold and storm that makes this earth of thine to blossom and bear its fruit. 

“So in our lives it is storm and stress and hurt and suffering that makes real men and women bring the world’s work to its highest perfection.

“Let us learn then, in these growing years, to respect the harder, sterner aspects of life together, with its joy and laughter, and to weave them all into the great web which hangs holy to the Lord.”

+++

From Rep. John Lewis:  June 2018: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“Healing River,” by Mey Hasbrook

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 11, 2022

While not a usual story for this time of year – Advent, and what we observe as Christmas – today’s message I believe shares in its heart or essence.  I offer a query for today’s expectant waiting worship, as lifted by our opening song, “Healing River”:

Who is the Healing River?  How do we welcome the river? And how does healing arise?

As we gently carry this query, let’s visit a river this morning found in Yellowstone National Park, what’s popularly lauded as the first national park of the United States.  The land base is linked with 27 tribal nations.

Wolves now are abundant because of being returned to the land in 1995, after being killed off in the 1930s.  Yellowstone’s web site explains “the presence of wolves triggered a still-unfolding cascade effect among animals and plants–one that will take decades of research to understand.” 

A brief video documents and narrates the recovery of the land in Yellowstone, since humans returned the wolves.  Taller trees invite songbirds.  Forests regenerate, giving beavers willow to create habitats for more species.  And the river’s course becomes more steady with stronger banks, since elk seek refuge in wooded areas. 

This ecological process is called a trophic cascade, beginning with “the top of the food chain” and continuing “all the way down to the bottom.”  We are bearing witness to a kind of modern miracle described  “when an ecosystem becomes whole again”, and all because of welcoming wolves back to the land.

I wish to honor the healing that is taking place there especially with the river.  The river as Living Waters, establishing healthier spaces for an increasing range of plants and animals.  This possibility only arose through restoring balance.  The presence of wolves spread out the elks, ending overuse of banks; human efforts did not accomplish this aim in prior decades.

~~
Again, our query: Who is the Healing River?  How do we welcome the river? And how does healing arise?

Twenty-seven tribal nations are linked with the land called Yellowstone National Park.  The park’s historical accounts of itself erased the Original Peoples’ own stories and even their existence.  This year is the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone, and a new Tribal Heritage Center was opened. One of the center’s aims is to bring “Native American artists, scholars and others to speak directly with visitors about Indigenous cultures.”

I pray that this small change – of bringing in some Indigenous persons with firsthand stories of Original Peoples – will become like the trophic cascade credited to wolves.  As Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, describes:  “like kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change.”

Yes, certain changes despite being small can contribute to the restoration of life and land for Original Peoples and for All.  Justice too is miraculous and brings healing, or wholeness.  How will we embrace the movement of Spirit? 

What is our leading from the shared space of what we call Durham Friends Meeting – this gathering in a Meeting House near the Androscoggin River, alongside a forest under our care, sitting on the lands of Wabanaki Peoples?  How does God call us as a faith community – and as persons of Quaker faith –  to welcome the healing river to our neighbors, to every kind of neighbor?

In closing today’s message, I’ll read a Bible passage of great importance to me over decades.  While it does not name a river, the scripture does speak about the Living Waters, healing, and change.  I believe it’s a bridge to the kind of change that we seek at this time of year.  From Isaiah 58 verses 6 to 12 (NRSVUE):

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator [a] shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10 if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your needs in parched places

and make your bones strong,,

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water whose waters never fail.

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.

~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~ | ~~~~~~~~~~

About the hymn “Healing River”.
American “Fran” Minkoff wrote the lyrics, and the song released the same year, 1964, that Pete Seeger spent the Mississippi Freedom Summer working for racial justice.  Singing to an audience upon learning of the murder of three young civil rights workers, the musician describes the audience’s response  not “shouting for revenge” but, instead,“an intense determination to continue this work of love.” Attributed to his memoir, as described here –  https://singout.org/folksingers-field-report-august-5-1964/ .

About the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
Video and article titled, “Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone” (2021), found here – https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wildlife/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem/ .

About the Tribal Heritage Center at Yellowstone.
Article titled, “Yellowstone showcases the area’s Indigenous peoples for 150th anniversary” (2022), found here –  https://thepointsguy.com/news/yellowstone-showcases-indigenous-peoples/ .

“The Living Waters,” by Mey Hasbrook

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 13, 2022

For me, prayer is like water:  We seek water, listen for its sound and follow. We go to fresh water and drink, and bring it back to offer others.  We wash and refresh with water. 

Prayer is akin to worship, and emerges through worship.  We may call worship “inviting” the Divine.  I experience worship as remembering the Living Presence of the Divine…  Who Already Is –  Spirit, God, Jesus, The Light.  It’s like re-immersing in a body of water – at times, being with the calm stillness that always is; and at others, riding life’s waves and strong currents.
~~
My leading to bring the message came when sitting here in worship.  It was during Meeting for Worship with Attention to Healing – for short, Meeting for Healing. This worship is led by Portland Friends, and I sync Durham’s Owl system occasionally – the next time being Thursday, December 1st.

Friends first convened this meeting for healing when the Covid pandemic started.  I visited by Zoom while living in  Michigan, sitting in my home’s basement. Friends continue to gather on a bimonthly basis. I’d like to share the introduction from Portland Friends about their meeting for healing: 

Meeting for Worship for Healing is an old Quaker tradition.  Our goal with this meeting is to focus on the physical and spiritual illnesses of the current world.  It’s not intended to be the same as a full meeting for worship but instead is meant to be focused on communal prayer.  We are often blessed with a time of deep silence.  Messages may arise but should be de-centered from our ego.

Invitation to Worship in clamorous times

We are living through a time when we are inundated with words.

We invite you during worship to sink deeply

Below the political messages,

below the personal efforts to put things into words

Down to the Silence

Down to the Living Waters
Down to the Source that connects us all
~~
Meeting for Healing – at times also called “healing prayer” – is foundational to my  becoming a Quaker.  Preparing today’s message has made this fact plain to me.  During Durham Friends’ listening session on October 30th, I heard stories of how people came to be here – in Quaker worship, at this meeting house.  And I could feel the truth of my own:  My experience is about seeking the Living Waters, or the Living Presence; and listening to where God would have me be, or to go.

Please join me in a journey.  Let’s go to Lansing, Michigan, dialing back to October 2007.  I attend my first Sunday silent worship.  Held in a community room at a neighborhood book store, the meeting is called “early worship” and hosts a small circle.  How have I come to be here?

A seed is planted two years earlier, 2005, by a writer friend who also is a fellow former evangelical.  She thinks that I’d like “Quaker meeting”  – that is, Quaker as she knows it:  silent or unprogrammed worship.  When she gives me this idea, I already know Quakers since 9/11, through our co-organizing anti-war protests and programs over several years.

So come again to the Fall of 2007, I try out the bookstore location for worship.  Firstly, because it is not a church;  my body has found it a hardship to sit in a church for several years.  And I also come because I recently began sobriety from alcohol.  The most basic truth is that I come to Quaker worship because I am thirsting for the Living Waters, and it is the Living Presence that brings me back.
~~
A new acquaintance from Sunday worship tells me about another meeting.  It’s a monthly meeting for healing.  The gathering is at the home of Richard, a cozy cape-cod house laden with knick-knacks.  An avid thrifter, Richard is warm-hearted, big-bellied, and a very out gay man who wears amber-beaded necklaces during worship.

I become a regular in this home-based worship.  People who show up bring open hearts, and we are human in every way.  After worship, many stay to ask questions and share our experiences.  We enjoy Richard’s pots of tea and a potluck-style dinner.  Through faithfulness and fellowship, friendships grow.  And some months later, I do visit the larger later Sunday worship, which gathers in a circular room of a local church.
~~
Friends, let us journey “back” to here and now.   And wherever we are “arriving” from in the Meeting House – perhaps sitting on a bench with one another, or physically from another geography – I pray that we refresh ourselves with the Living Waters.  I pray that we hear the Living Presence calling us into relationship – with Jesus as the Path of Love, with one another, and with persons known and yet known to us.  Friend Rufus Jones, from the 19th and 20th centuries with roots in Maine, writes:

…most of our life, whether it is simple or complex, is a life of relationships with other persons. It is this fact of inter-relationship that makes life spiritual, and it is this that often makes it so tragic.  We cannot, if we would, fence round our souls and keep them naked and alone.  We are good or bad, not in soul-tight compartments, but in our dealing with other persons who fill our world.

Our
highest* dealings, those which affect our entire being in the profoundest way, are our relationships with God. Nothing else so completely shapes one’s whole nature as his way of responding to his Infinite Companion, for everybody does respond in one way or another.         (*emphasis in original text)

Here is the closing prayer that I lift up:   Spirit, may the doors of Durham Friends Meeting open widely – physically from the Meeting House, and imaginatively as a faith community into our daily lives.  May we open our homes to neighbors, seekers, and strangers.  May we become invitations to prayer and worship.  May we refresh our minds, hearts, and souls with the Living Waters.  May we remember the Living Presence of the Divine Who Already Is.  Jesus, may we be healed and bring healing to others.  Amen.
——–
Resources about Meeting for Healing among historical and contemporary Friends are available on this web page maintained by Red Cedar Friends Meeting of Lansing, Michigan (Lake Erie YM), <https://redcedarfriends.org/join-us-for-worship/deepening-our-experience/meeting-with-attention-to-healing/meeting-for-healing-resources/> .

“Fear Not,” by Doug Bennett

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, October 16, 2023

“Fear not.”  That’s my message this morning:  “Fear not.” 

In the Bible, this may be the statement most commonly said by God, or by one of God’s special messengers.  I’ve read that this phrase appears 103 times in the Bible.  I don’t know whether that’s an accurate count but it’s a big number. 

“Fear not.”  There aren’t that many clear, unambiguous instructions from God in the Bible (even if some people mistakenly think there are).  But there is this one:  “fear not.” 

I don’t know whether it’s an instruction or a command, an exhortation or a soothing comfort.  Maybe it’s all of these.  Maybe sometimes it’s one and sometimes another.

“21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones. Thus he reassured them and comforted them.”  That’s Genesis 51:21.  It’s Joseph speaking to his brothers who had sold him into slavery.  The brothers had worldly reasons to fear what Joseph might do.  But Joseph is telling them what God wants him to say:  fear not. 

Or how about this:  22 You shall not fear them; for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.’”  That’s Deuteronomy 3:22.  That’s Moses talking to Joshua, his military commander, telling him that God will look out for them as they conquer their way toward the Promised Land. 

And then there’s this:  Fear not, for I am with you;  I will bring your offspring from the east,  and from the west I will gather you;”  That’s from Isaiah 53:5, the prophet Isaiah speaking, at a time when God’s people weren’t paying attention and had worldly reason to worry that God was very displeased with them. 

I’m not going to read all 103 instances, but I’ll read one more.  “Fear not” is not only in the Hebrew Testament.  Here is Luke 1:30, the beginning of the Christmas story:  30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”  That’s the Angel Gabriel speaking to Mary, giving her good – if surprising — news. 

“Fear not.”  It’s said over and over again.  “Al tirah;”  that’s the Hebrew. 

There’s a lot to fear in this world.  In the book of Exodus, with the Israelites in captivity in Egypt, God sent ten plagues:  water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of firstborn children.  And God counsels “fear not.” 

In recent years, we’ve had what begins to feel like our own ten plagues.  Terrorist acts, endless war, financial panic, wildfires, more war, Covid pandemic, hurricanes, school shootings, attempted election theft, abortion madness (whichever side you’re on).  You get why we’re fearful.  But God says, “Fear not.” 

Many are feeling anger, too, but much of that anger grows out of fear.

I’m talking to myself this morning as much as I’m talking to any of you.  I wake up to the temptation to feel fear every day.  And I go to sleep facing the same temptation.  Fear can paralyze us.  I find myself bracing for the next bit of bad news.  I don’t do anything constructive because I want to hear that next bit of bad news. 

In the science fiction classic Dune, Frank Herbert has a character – it’s Paul Antreides – say “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” 

It’s the same thought.  When we fear, we diminish ourselves; we die a little without really dying, we die a little-death.  We grow passive; we withdraw from life.  And there’s more: we isolate ourselves from others; we withdraw from God.  Fear takes us over.  It becomes all consuming. 

God says “fear not:” if we can do that, then what?  If we can manage to follow God’s instruction, to “fear not,” if we empty ourselves of fear, what next?  With what do we fill the large hole that fear has been filling up inside us?  When we empty ourselves of fear, when we let it go, what should we look to find instead?

This oft-repeated exhortation to “fear not” is telling us what not to do.  It isn’t, just in these words, telling us what we should do.  But isn’t it obvious?  Isn’t courage the alternative to fear? 

Here’s the surprise for many of us.  God does not tell us to “have courage.”  To exhort us to “have courage” would have us rely on ourselves.  But that’s not it; that’s not what we should do. 

Instead, over and over, God says “trust in me;” “have faith in me.”  The opposite of fear isn’t courage.  It’s faith.  It’s trust in the Lord.  It’s “know that God loves you, always.”

Listen to Psalm 56:

When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
In God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?

And here’s Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.The Lord of Hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.

We may find courage once we have faith, but faith and trust come first — and love.

In 1:John:1, one of the letters in the New Testament, we are told to “rely on the love God has for us.”  That letter continues:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Trust in the Lord.  Have faith.  Give yourself over to love:  that’s what God tells us when God tells us not to be caught up in fear. 

The first bit of the Bible I learned by heart was the 23d Psalm.  Perhaps you learned it, too, as a child.  I invite you to say it with me: 

The LORD Is My Shepherd  A Psalm of David.  The 23d Psalm

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
a
3He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
b
for his name’s sake.

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,c
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surelyd goodness and mercye shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell
f in the house of the LORD forever.g

So Friends, this morning I am reminding you of God’s reassurance, “fear not.”  Trust in God.  Have faith.  Love one another and love God.  Remember that God is with us, always. 

also posted on River View Friend

“Meditation,” by Mimi Marstaller

On September 25, 2022, Mimi Marstaller gave a message on meditation.

In it, she shared a poem, “Longing”, by Julie Cadwallader Staub.

Longing, By Julie Cadwallader Staub

Consider the blackpoll warbler.

She tips the scales
at one ounce
before she migrates, taking off
from the seacoast to our east
flying higher and higher
ascending two or three miles
during her eighty hours of flight
until she lands,
in Tobago,
north of Venezuela
three days older,
and weighing half as much.

She flies over open ocean almost the whole way.

Oh she is not so different from us.
The arc of our lives is a mystery too.
We do not understand,
we cannot see
what guides us on our way:
that longing that pulls us toward light.

Not knowing, we fly onward
hearing the dull roar of the waves below.

“First Love,” by Ken Jacobsen

Message delivered at Durham Friends Meeting, September 18, 2022

This morning’s message at Durham Friends was given by Ken Jacobsen, a member of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). 

He spoke of First Love, beginning with recollection of the passing of his wife and partner Katherine five and a half years ago.  Out of his grief he found himself led back to his first love – the first love any of us know – the steady love that God has for each and every one of us.

This life, he said, is “a school of love.”

He drew our attention to the teaching about the two great commandments in Mark 12:28-31:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Towards the end, Ken Jacobson brought to our recollection Isaac Penington’s letter that begins “Our life is love.”  Here is the full text of that letter. 

TO FRIENDS IN AMERSHAM                      Aylesbury, 4th of Third Month, 1667

FRIENDS,

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and anything that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So watch your hearts and <487> ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.

Your Friend in the Truth, and a desirer of your welfare and prosperity therein. — Isaac Penington

“Spiritual Leadership for a Climate-Changed World,” by Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, Executive Director, The BTS Center

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 14, 2022

Words of Joanna Macy, on gratitude:

We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.

Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create.

The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It’s like a setting or channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what’s going on around us. It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does. It’s a stance of the soul… Gratitude is the kernel that can flower into everything we need to know.

Take a few deep breaths and call to mind something for which you are grateful. If you’re comfortable, hold your hands in front of you like this, and imagine that you are holding this thing for which you are grateful. Quite possibly it’s not a tangible thing that you can hold in your hand, but imagine that you are. Hold it, and silently offer your unspoken words of thanks.

Today I’d like to talk with you about spiritual leadership for a climate-changed world.

First I want to let you in on a little secret: When I say “Spiritual leadership,” I’m talking about you. You are a spiritual leader. By virtue of the fact that you are part of this Friends Meeting, striving to embody Quaker values — a commitment to simplicity, a belief in the centrality of silence, openness to truth as it is continually revealed, a genuine desire to seek peace with oneself and others, practices rooted in community, equality, and stewardship (these are some of the things I appreciate about the Quaker tradition!) — by virtue of this, I want to you to hear me say that you are a spiritual leader. Maybe you’ve never thought of yourself that way, but today I boldly proclaim that you are one, or at least you have the potential to be one, and the world needs you to live into the fullness of that identity.

Spiritual leadership for a climate-changed world — do you see what we did there? Climate-changed? Maybe you noticed that we added a little “d” tacked on the end. What happens when we do that? Suddenly that familiar phrase, “climate change,” becomes past tense. No longer can we think of climate change as something off in the future. It’s here and now — and it’s a primary characteristic of the world in which we are living and in which spiritual leaders are called to lead.

So what does spiritual leadership demand of us, in a world where temperatures are rising? Yesterday’s headline read, “The Arctic is heating up nearly four times faster than the whole planet, study finds.” Probably you know that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 96% of the oceans on the planet. In a world where sea levels are rising, causing more frequent flooding that threatens coastal communities, even forcing residents of some low-lying islands to relocate… In a world of more intense hurricanes, unpredictable winter storms, disastrous drought in some places and equally disastrous rainstorms in other places… In a world where devasting wildfires destroy habitats and ravage forests that sequester carbon… In a world where 1 in 7 bird species is at risk of extinction and more than 40% of insect species are in decline, 1/3 of them endangered — and of course, the loss of birds and insects threatens agriculture in significant ways, which has a devastating ripple effect across the food chain… What does spiritual leadership require of us in a climate-changed world?

I don’t know about you, but I find it’s essential, maybe even a little bit liberating, to name the truth — to put it all out there and acknowledge it for what it is. The truth is heavy, but what’s worse than confronting all of this is denying it. Turns out there’s nothing at all hopeful about burying our heads in the sand. Environmental scientist Katharine Hayhoe says she is often asked, “What can I do?” Her response: the most important thing we can do to address the climate crisis is to talk about it.

When I talk about it, I often quote another environmental advocate, Gus Speth:

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

When I hear these words, I get energized. Cultural and spiritual transformation may not be within the purview of scientific community, but it should be within the purview of the faith community! It should be within the purview of the Quaker community! We at The BTS Center are focusing on spiritual leadership for a climate-changed world, because we want to see cultural and spiritual transformation!

The climate crisis is more than just a parts-per-million problem. It’s more than just a fossil fuels problem. It’s more than just a plastics problem, more than just a global warming or greenhouse gas or sea level rise or species extinction problem — these are all symptoms. The underlying crisis is a spiritual crisis — rooted in selfishness, greed, and apathy, expressed in a pernicious cycle of domination, extraction, and consumption. In our extractive capitalist culture, we have been fed the lie that the sole purpose in life is to consume more. To see meaningful change, we need a new vision for what it means to live a good life — a life that is rooted in justice, in equity, in the common good, and not only for ourselves, but also for all living things.

At its roots, the climate crisis is a spiritual crisis, and the solutions need to be grounded in spiritual transformation.

Which is to say, the world needs us to show up in this moment. The world needs you, my Quaker friends: you and your commitment to simplicity, your belief in the centrality of silence, your openness to truth as it is continually revealed, your genuine desire to seek peace with oneself and others, you practices rooted in community, equality, and stewardship — more than ever before, the world needs you and your spiritual leadership. And I know that can be overwhelming, and I know we don’t know where to start, but I want to suggest that it begins by digging ever more deeply into our practice of faith. For a moment, let me return quickly to Joanna Macy.

In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy offers some important guidance for what she calls the Work that  Reconnects:

• Begin with Gratitude: “When we come from gratitude,” Joanna Macy suggests, “we become more present to the wonder of being alive in this amazing living world, to the many gifts we receive, to the beauty we appreciate.” Especially in a time when so much in our world seems to be spinning out of control — so much loss, so much suffering, so much violence — we need to practice gratitude, and it needs to be daily because yesterday’s gratitude isn’t sufficient for today’s struggles. A regular practice of gratitude helps to build a context of trust and psychological buoyancy that supports us to face difficult realities.

• Honor our pain for the world: When we begin with naming what we love, what we’re grateful for, we quickly become aware of all that is unraveling in our world, and this leads us to feel deep pain — maybe outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread, despair — these are all normal and healthy responses to a world in trauma. It’s important to honor these emotions. Joanna Macy writes, “Our pain for the world not only alerts us to danger, but also reveals our profound caring. And this caring derives from our interconnectedness with all life. We need not fear it.”

• See with new eyes: This means widening our vision, taking stock of the resources and communities available to us. In Joanna Macy’s words, “When seeing with new eyes, you know that it isn’t just you facing this. You are just one part of a much larger story, a continuing stream of life on Earth that has flowed for more than three and a half billion years and that has survived five mass extinctions. When you sink into this deeper, stronger flow and experience yourself as part of it, a different set of possibilities emerges.” We begin to see ourselves differently. We begin to see our own power differently. We discover a richer experience of community and a more expansive view of time.

• Go forth: Let go of feeling like this is all on you. Focus on discovering and playing your part, sharing your gifts, offering your best contributions to the healing of the world. Take the next faithful step.

Begin with gratitude. Honor our pain for the world. See with new eyes. Go forth.

In their collection of essays called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, editors Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson write:

“So where do we go from here? First, we take a breath. It’s a lot. And in some ways, we, humans, were not designed for a crisis this massive and all-encompassing. In other ways, we were made for this moment. What we do now is dream. From a foundation of science and community (note: I would add spiritual practice, as well), we must imagine the future we want to live in, and the future we want to pass on, and every day do something to reel the dream closer to reality.”

This is who we’re called to be, and this is what we’re called to do.

What if you’re not feeling particularly optimistic? Here’s what Joanna Macy says:

“I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope. It’s okay not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out. So just be present. The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present. And when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic — who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”

May it be so. Amen.




“Membership Matters,” by Doug Bennett

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 11, 2022

It’s membership that’s on my mind this morning.  It’s on my mind because recently I’ve been asked a few times about how one becomes a member of a Quaker Meeting.  I’m a member of Ministry and Council, the committee of the Meeting that handles membership matters.  

Membership:  Is this a club you’re joining?  Is membership just a matter of affiliation? Like being a member of Rotary, not a member of the Lions or of the Odd Fellows.  Or like being a Phillies fan not a Mets or Yankees fan. 

I wasn’t born into membership.  I’m a convinced Friend, not a birthright Friend.   I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  I first went to Quaker Meeting in college, and attended fitfully until I made the decision to become a member in my mid-30s.  I remember with some embarrassment how long it took me to write a letter to the Meeting I joined – mostly because I didn’t really know what I believed.  Writing the letter made that all too clear.  They took me in anyway.  (It turned out it didn’t matter so much what I believed.  More on that later.)

I said I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  My mother and my father had each grown up in a Northern Baptist Church.  They had full body immersion baptism as teenagers, not infant Baptism.  They met at a Northern Baptist college – Bates.  But as a family we went to a Presbyterian Church.  Why?  because it was nearby, because friends went there, and because there wasn’t a Northern Baptist Church easily to be found.  So was this Rotary not Lions, Phillies not Yankees.  I wondered as a kid.  Does it matter?  Why?

Early Quakers didn’t have membership.  They weren’t trying to create another distinct group of Christians with a slightly different set of beliefs.  They wanted to change the way everyone thought about being a Christian.  It was only after a few decades had passed and Quakers were being persecuted that they started having membership – so they could keep track of who needed assistance from other Quakers while they were in jail or didn’t have a job.  

Being a Quaker is an affiliation, I suppose.  This is my religious club; this is my religious clubhouse.  But this isn’t all it is, an affiliation.  A little over a decade ago I was a member of Quaker Meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting, and we were thrown out.  Not from Quakerism, but from the Yearly Meeting.  It was a rude and unsettling experience.  Why were we thrown out?  Because we had beliefs and practices that welcomed people whatever their sexual orientation.  We didn’t believe homosexuality was a sin.   So we got the heave-ho. 

Does being a Quaker mean having the correct beliefs?  Many Friends recoil from that thought, don’t we?  Part of being a Quaker is not having a creed, not having to ascribe to a formula of beliefs.  It’s something else, something more.  That ‘non-creedalism (no orthodox, insisted-on beliefs) is important to me, and it seems like Indiana Yearly Meeting lost its way on that. 

What does it mean to become a Quaker, a member of a Quaker Church or Quaker Meeting.  It’s not just an affiliation.  It’s more.  To talk about that something more I think we have to think about matters of discipline and commitment, too. 

Let’s start with discipline. I know that can be a worrying, even forbidding term, with its suggestive overtones of punishment. It becomes a warmer word, however, when we think of it as having to do with being a disciple – a student, a follower, a learner. Discipline is a way of discipleship. 

We each need a discipline, I think, because we each need a way to learn about God and what God expects of us. I’m wary of those who believe that knowing God is easy, as if it were something that just happens without our having to make much effort. Perhaps that is so for some people, but I am skeptical. For me, knowing God takes active effort. Making no effort is much more likely to lead me towards inattention and selfish behavior. 

So for me, I need a discipline: a learning strategy, a regular approach to knowing God. I am pretty sure we do not all need the same discipline.  For me, that is a clue to why it is not a bad thing that there are a variety of denominations. Think of each as embodying a distinctive religious discipline. “This is how we work together to know God.”   (Of course, for many denominations, there is also a creed, an orthodoxy.)

For me, waiting worship is a most helpful approach: gathering with others in stillness to seek God.  I know many who find the repetition of the Mass to be especially useful for drawing closer to God.  I know many people who value external sacraments, or who value ‘smells and bells’, or – a lot of other things.  A place to start on a spiritual journey is to know what spiritual discipline is best for you. 

From the British Quaker Ben Pink Dandelion I learned a new word:  orthopraxy.  Quakers, he says, don’t have an orthodoxy; they don’t have a creed.  But they do have a set of distinctive practices especially in worship.  Those distinctive practices, especially waiting worship, are the orthopraxy. 

Discipline opens the door to commitment, and to community   There may be some who can find and settle into a discipline all by themselves – without anyone else.  But that’s not for me, and I imagine would not be for most others.  If I am to settle into deep, waiting worship, I want to gather with others in doing that.  We do it together.  And so it is with most religious disciplines: their practice requires a community to practice them well.  So spiritual discipline requires community, and community requires commitment. 

In seeking such a community, I’m looking for a group of people who will not just be present once, but be present together over time, gathering and regathering.  I’m looking for a group of people who will make a commitment to being together for worship and seeking, and I’ll expect to make a commitment to them, too.  To become a member of a Quaker Meeting is to say, ‘you can count on me as we seek together for God’s will.’ 

How will that commitment be shown?  I can imagine a variety of ways: via regular financial contributions, via service on committees, via volunteering to help in other ways.  But most of all through regular count-upon-it attendance, week in and week out.  Taking part, showing up, being engaged.  In my Quaker meeting it does me good to see familiar faces each week, people I expect to be there and who expect me to be there, too.  We gather strength from one another. 

Also posted on Riverview Friend

“Grounding in Love” by Mey Hasbrook

James Weldon Johnson, born in 1870 during Reconstruction after the US Civil War, wrote the poem-song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while his brother put it to music. They did this in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. James recounts:

The song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.

This is how “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became cherished as the Negro or Black National Anthem: young people to young people, teachers to youth; sewing, growing and moving. Martin Luther King, Jr. closes his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” with one of its stanza

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

The speech was MLK Jr.’s last presidential address given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the African-American civil rights group that still exists and was founded after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The speech’s timing was just one year before Dr. King’s assassination and a decade after the SCLC began. In the speech, he celebrates gains of the Civil Rights Movement including two monumental Supreme Court rulings.

He equally names the work still required of the Movement: to grow into or move into wholeness. He encourages to embrace “divine dissatisfaction” until this vision of wholeness becomes reality, stating: “that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

He recalls the story of Jesus instructing the tax collector Nicodemus to be born again. So Dr. King says to America that the nation must be born again: “that your whole structure must be changed.” And to move into such deep change, he grounds “divine dissatisfaction” in Love for the work toward wholeness. Love for him is “a strong, demanding love”; and a choice in response to hate and oppression, able to endure even betrayal.

The turbulence of today is like that of 55 years ago when MLK Jr. asked “Where Do We Go From Here?” From our here-and-now, Love still is what sustains the making of the Kin-dom of God – a future sewn, grown, and moving us toward wholeness from our present moment of struggle.

Listening to Spirit and inviting wisdom from ancestors, I am compelled by experience that Love is God and requires me to “sink down to the seed” – a phrase from the First Friends, our faithful ancestors: spiritually-empowered dissidents living through civil war in England and during the Reformation.

The experience of “sinking down to the seed” requires me to draw-down into the Divine Source, also called the Living Waters, in order to draw-up Love. I believe that this is the legacy for the Religious Society of Friends and, thereby, the inheritance of Durham Monthly Meeting as a faith community: to act with confidence that with God all things are possible and that Love is required in the work of wholeness.

Let’s encounter and embody “God’s power and human power”, the kind of power that Dr. King bears witness to: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”

So, it is in the name of Christ and Beloved Community, that I invite our embracing the movement of divine dissatisfaction toward wholeness: Where will we go from here? How will we ground ourselves in Love among the wider world and among one another? How will we nurture “a strong, demanding Love” as an enduring choice?

Will we be courageous, examine our hearts, and become willing to risk all? Like Early Friend James Nayler, whose last words were shared as the opening reading for today’s worship. Friend James was tortured as punishment for blasphemy. He made peace with God despite his broken body, and sought reconciliation with his spiritual brother George Fox despite being rebuffed repeatedly.

Will we hear Christ, and follow the call as did Ananias? The Ananias who Jesus called to heal the persecutor Saul, and who Jesus had recently blinded.

I believe that this is the legacy for the Religious Society of Friends and, thereby, the inheritance of Durham Monthly Meeting as a faith community: to act with confidence that with God all things are possible and that Love is required in the work of wholeness.

It is my prayer that we may be grounded in Love. May we sink down to the seed to draw-down to the Divine Source, the Living Waters. May we draw-up an enduring choice to work for wholeness, a work that requires all of ourselves: to heal and receive healing; to repair breaches and reconcile one to another; and to testify to God’s power and human power. Amen.

Sources:

“A Gathered People.” Last words of James Nayler found in Quaker Faith & Practice, 5th edition, Britain Yearly Meeting, Chapter 19.12 <https://qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/19-12/>

“Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Song and introduction by James Weldon Johnson found on the Poetry Foundation web site, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46549/lift-every-voice-and-sing>.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. found on the Stanford University web site, <https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here>.

“The Quaker Testimony of Community,” by C. Wess Daniels

Sometimes “Community” is lifted up as a testimony within the Quaker world. I can see why. Our emphasis on group decision-making, communion in the form of waiting worship where Christ is present in our midst, and our belief that testimony is our public expression of our communal encounter of our faith in Christ are all examples.These are the results of processes and practices that rely on a strong foundation of community, but the work involved in creating that strong sense of community is much harder to come by. This may come as a shock to some of you but my story of community among Quakers has been very up and down over the past 21 years of identifying as a Quaker. Mine has been a story of trying to belong and understand what it means to belong. There have been times when some Friends in some places have not been so welcoming [some going so far as to try to get me to leave]. But there have also been Friends in many places who have welcomed me even when I didn’t always fit into their categories.But those are longer stories to be shared another time. The point is: Just because we say we have a testimony of community does not automatically mean community and belonging exist.

Belonging to a Friends meeting and being a Quaker are identities in parallel: I am a Quaker because of my own convictions and understanding of who God is & I seek to belong to a local expressions of that larger and much older tradition. Sometimes my commitment to one impacts my commitment to the other and vice versa, but they are not always in sync.

What helps with creating belonging in our local expressions of the Quaker tradition? Here are three quick ideas:

1. We need to have a strong centerInstead of being focused on protecting external boundaries of community (what belief, or identity, or practice is acceptable), we commit to a deep knowing and understanding of the center of our tradition. For me that is a deep commitment to the liberating Jesus who is present in our midst and who stands in solidarity with the poor and all those on the margins. Being clear about our center – whatever that is – allows us to invite people into something. It recognizes that we cannot be all things to all people but we can be this specific expression of community to those who want to be a part of that. I don’t just want to belong. I want to belong to something. 

2. We need to make practices and beliefs explicitAs new people show up they need be helped to know what is going on, what is believed, and how to get engaged. We should have structures, practices, and liturgies that assume from the outset that people who have no prior understanding of the Quaker tradition will be in our midst. There should be no mystery to who we are and what we do. We have a lot of implicit theology and practice that can feel exclusive if you’ve never experienced any of it before. I have heard people say this quote far too often, “Quakerism cannot be taught, only caught.” That is terrible theology and points to a culture of secrecy that will not only keep people from belonging, but it will also slowly kill off discipleship within our communities. Quakerism must be taught, re-interpreted, and re-taught again. 

3. We need to build weak links with each other That low threshold moments of community can build lasting links to one another. It’s one thing to show up to an important business meeting, but if we don’t know each other, have never shared a meal, don’t know each other’s fears, joys, kids names, it is almost impossible to do the hard work of discernment together well. The baseball game we went to as a meeting last night is an example of building weak links. So are potlucks and bonfires. Things where we get together for fun, the stakes are low, and the goal is to build connections. The more inputs we have with these opportunities, the more we can invite various people in, the more we do the mundane work of building belonging.We don’t need to be big productions and we don’t need permission to do this: all it takes is an invitation to share a meal, a cup of coffee or tea, a walk, a podcast, or a project together. We can all be build weak links right now.

I think we always need this kind of work, but we need it especially right now when the world feels so dangerous and inhospitable. We need to re-introduce ourselves to community and to one another.Quakers have to work just like everyone else to build community and a sense of belonging. I believe we can do this by being clear about who we are and what we’re up to (our center), about onboarding people into our tradition (making thing explicit), and by making the effort to be lower-f friends with each other (building those weak links with each other).

by Wess Daniels, Greensboro, NC (Haw River Watershed)

“This I Know Experimentally,” by Doug Bennett

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 5, 2022

I want to begin this morning with a story familiar to Friends.  It’s the story of George Fox’s epiphany.  It’s about a moment in his life in 1647 when he was at a place called Pendle Hill.  It’s the moment he realized that God could and would speak to him in the present.  It’s the story of when he came to realize that he did not need priests or preachers or pastors.  It’s the story of when he came to realize the power of the Light Within.

He had been  seeking help in his spiritual journey from various learned and supposedly wise people.  None of them seemed to be able to help him.  He was in despair.  And then he realized something unexpected and wonderful.  Here’s how he tells the story in his Journal.  Speaking of the priests and preachers and pastors from whom he had been seeking assistance, he said,

I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall prevent it? and this I knew experimentally.”    — George Fox, 1647

I think the words we mostly remember from this are these:  “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

Those are striking words, no doubt about it.  But today it’s the last phrase that is on my mind.  “And this I knew experimentally.”  “And this I knew experimentally:”  what did Fox mean by this?

I’m not a linguist or a philologist, but I think Fox’s use of the word “experimentally” is a very early use of that word in English.  It’s a newish word when he spoke it.  We don’t yet have in 1647 ‘the scientific method’ as we know it today.  Galileo had just died, still convicted of heresy by the Pope.  And Isaac Newton was just age 5 in 1647.  We shouldn’t think the word ‘experimental’ had precisely the same narrow meaning then that it might today. But it did have a meaning roughly like the way we use it today

Broadly speaking, to know something “experimentally” is to know it “by experience.”  Fox doesn’t mean that he had conducted a formal experiment with randomized groups or controls or double-blind procedures, the way scientists might speak about experiments today.  But in saying he knew this “experimentally” he does mean he had direct experience. 

When we speak of “experience” we mean direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.  Normally, we mean seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – knowledge we gain through our senses.  Most of us today think of our senses as external senses: they are how we perceive or experience the world ‘out there’.  What Fox is saying, I think, is that we can have internal experience.  There is another sense beyond the five we mostly count.  It’s an internal sense.  I think this is what Fox is speaking about when he says, “And this I knew experimentally.”

I felt it.  I heard it.  It touched me.  I felt it within. 

This is all on my mind because I’ve found myself thinking about what this ‘direct experience’ feels like.  What does it ‘feel like’ when God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit – however you want to name the Divine — ‘speaks to my condition?’  What do I know when I know experimentally?

Fox heard a voice.  There are some who have quite a forceful experience.  The Apostle Paul was one.  Acts 9:3-4 tells the story:  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He saw a light. 

In 1559 (about a century before Fox’s epiphany) Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun had a quite direct experience with a seraph – a kind of angel:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it … She felt a touch that pierced her. 

 Most of us don’t have experiences as dramatic as these.  So, again, what does it feel like?  That’s a question for each of us to answer.  Each of us might give a somewhat different answer. For most of us, it’s less like piercings of the heart and more like glimpses and nudges.  Over the centuries, Quakers have recorded what it felt like in journals and in letters to one another.  The glimpses and nudges are so gentle that most of us have to learn to notice them.  They can be subtle; they can be easy to miss. 

This spring, along with a dozen or two others, I’ve been in a Midweek Meditation group led by Brian Drayton.  He’s been having us read and reflect on some of the letters and essays of Isaac Penington, a contemporary of Fox who was drawn to Quakerism.  

In one, Penington speaks of the “breathings” of the Lord leaving a living presence in him. 

In the same essay, he asks, “Dost thou feel the ease which comes from the living arm, to the heart which is joined to it in the light of the gospel?”  And he asks, “Dost thou feel the life and power flowing in upon thee from the free fountain?”  The direct experience he’s talking about is a breath, now it’s a touch, and now it’s a taste of water.

What strikes me in these passages is that Penington is not saying, authoritatively, ‘This is what it feels like.’  He’s not telling; he’s asking: “Dost thou feel?”  He is suggesting; he is coaching.  He is asking, did it feel something like this? 

He is directing our attention to what it might feel like.  But it is up to us to say.  We have to figure it out.  We have to feel it; we can’t be told what we should feel. 

In these suggestions he offers – “Dost thou feel?” – he mentions all of the familiar external senses as what it might feel like internally.  It might be something we see, or it might be a voice we hear.  It might be a body touch – a nudge that leads us down a path.  It might be a lingering smell, or a taste of something refreshing that gives us guidance. 

Penington has a language for the external senses, but not really the words that communicate what it might feel like within.  Nor really do any of us.  So Penington offers a variety of analogies: it might feel like this; it might feel like that, it might feel like this. 

Penington is assuring us, with Fox, “this we know experimentally.”  We can have direct experience.  He is also telling us, the experience may be subtle; we may have to search for it; we may have to quiet ourselves and still ourselves to feel the experience. 

Nevertheless, we can do this.  This we know experimentally.  So, Friends: dost thou feel?

Also posted on Riverviewfriend

“Tree of Life,” by Jane Field

Message given by Jane Field of the Maine Council of Churches at Durham Friends Meeting, May 1, 2022

I bring you greetings from the Maine Council of Churches, where I serve as the Executive Director. We are an ecumenical coalition of seven Protestant denominations in the state, including yours, the Religious Society of Friends. Together, we have 441 congregations with more than 55,000 members who live out their faith in towns from Kittery to Fort Kent, from Rumford to Eastport. The Quaker representative who sits on our Board is Diane Dicranian; a member of your Meeting, Cush Anthony, is an at-large member of the Board; and we work with the Clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting, Bruce Neumann, and consult with him on major issues before the Council. In fact, we are the grateful recipients of a Prejudice and Poverty Grant from the Yearly Meeting that is funding our upcoming event in Brunswick, “Saying Peace, Peace When There Is No Peace: How Demanding Civility Risks Protecting White Privilege,” next Thursday, May 5, from 11am to 1pm in-person at the UU Church and streaming online—we hope you’ll join us!

Your own Leslie Manning almost single-handedly held the Council together during some difficult days of restructuring about 10 years ago, and continued to serve on our Public Policy Committee for years after the boat stopped rocking. Another Quaker in MCC’s Hall of Fame is Tom Ewell, who served as Executive Director in the 80’s and 90’s and remains on my speed dial even today as a trusted colleague and faithful supporter of the Council. 

We are a small (but scrappy!) nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire congregations and Mainers of faith and goodwill to unite in working for the common good, building a culture of justice, compassion and peace, where peace is built with justice and justice is guided by love. We carry out that mission by offering statewide educational programs and resources, and through faith-based legislative advocacy in Augusta—promoting policies that:

  • Reduce poverty, hunger and homelessness
  • Protect and restore the environment
  • Increase equitable access to health care and education
  • Defend the rights and dignity of the vulnerable and marginalized (particularly LGBTQ+ and New Mainers, people of color, and our Wabanaki tribal neighbors)
  • And ensure that Mainers can live together harmoniously with equity, peace, and safety for everybody.

If you would like to learn more about our work, you’re welcome to take a copy of our most recent newsletter or visit our website (mainecouncilofchurches.org).  You can sign up to receive our newsletters and emails—either via our website, our Facebook page, or by phone.

You could say that we at the Maine Council of Churches are all about making connections—and this morning I’d like us to spend some time thinking about how and why God’s dream is for us to be … connected.  

We’re going to do that by looking at the hidden life of trees. That’s the title of a wonderful book by Peter Wohlleben, a forester who works deep in the forests of Germany, and who has learned astonishing things about trees—trees just like the ones outside this building, just like the ones in your own backyards. As I describe his extraordinary findings, I invite you to think about a favorite tree of yours (we all have one, don’t we? Mine is a Japanese pine that stands at the water’s edge near my family’s camp; my whole life it has been framed perfectly in the camp’s picture window that looks out on the lake).

Picture your tree’s trunk. Did your mind’s eye automatically look up? Now look down to where your tree’s trunk meets the earth, and let your imagination envision the intricate root systems that are lying underground below your tree.

In his book, Wohlleben describes something miraculous going on in those roots that we humans can neither see nor hear: trees are communicating with one another. He has discovered they depend on a complicated web of cooperative, interdependent relationships, alliances and kinship networks. Wise old mother trees feed their saplings and warn neighbor trees when danger is approaching. Reckless teenagers take foolhardy risks chasing the light and drinking excessively, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time. [Smithsonian, “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” by Richard Grant, March 2018]

A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of trees, and the latest studies confirm what Wohlleben and his colleague Suzanne Simard of British Columbia have long suspected: Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought. There is now scientific evidence showing that trees of the same species are communal, and often form alliances with trees of other species, too, living in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. 

These soaring columns of living wood draw our eyes upward, but the real action is taking place underground, just a few inches below our feet. Wohlleben jokes that we could call this underground communication network “the ‘wood-wide web.” It connects trees to each other through a web of roots and fungus. Trees share water and nutrients through the network, and also use it to communicate. They send distress signals about drought, disease, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.  

Scientists call these “mycorrhizal” (my-core-eyes-all) networks. The fine, hairlike root tips of trees join together with microscopic fungal filaments to form the basic links of the network. Trees pay a kind of fee for network services (like a cable or cell phone bill!) by allowing the fungi to consume about 30 percent of the sugar that the trees photosynthesize from sunlight. The sugar is what fuels the fungi, as they scavenge the soil for mineral nutrients, which are then absorbed and consumed by the trees. One teaspoon [hold up a teaspoon] of forest soil contains several MILES of these fungal filaments!

For young saplings in a deeply shaded part of the forest, the network is a lifeline. Lacking the sunlight to photosynthesize, they survive because big trees, including their parents, pump sugar into their roots through the network. For elderly trees, it serves as nursing care. Once, Wohlleben came across a gigantic beech stump, four or five feet across. The tree was felled 400 or 500 years ago, but scraping away the surface with his penknife, he found something astonishing: the stump was still green with chlorophyll. There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”  

To communicate through the network, trees send chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, which scientists are just beginning to decipher. Some trees may also emit and detect sounds, a crackling noise in the roots at a frequency inaudible to humans.

Trees also communicate through the air, using pheromones and other scent signals. In Africa, when a giraffe starts chewing acacia leaves, the tree notices the injury and emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. Upon detecting this gas, neighboring acacias start pumping tannins into their leaves. In large enough quantities these compounds can sicken or even kill large herbivores—like giraffes. (Giraffes are aware of this, however, having evolved with acacias, and this is why they browse into the wind, so the warning gas doesn’t reach the trees ahead of them. Giraffes seem to know that the trees are talking to one another!)

Trees can detect scent and taste through their leaves. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract wasps who lay their eggs inside the caterpillars. The wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

A recent study shows that trees recognize the taste of deer saliva. When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad so the deer will stop. If, on the other hand, a human breaks the branch, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.

Why do trees share resources and form alliances with trees of other species? Doesn’t the law of natural selection—“survival of the fittest”—suggest that they should be competing? “Actually, it doesn’t make evolutionary sense for trees to behave like resource-grabbing individualists,” botanist Simard says. “They live longest and reproduce most often in a healthy stable forest. That’s why they’ve evolved to help their neighbors.”

But this isn’t a high school biology class—why talk about this in a worship service? I can think of at least two reasons. The first is just the sheer miracle of it all—how amazing is God’s creation?!  

The second reason to talk about this in worship is because it is a beautiful metaphor from nature about how we are meant to exist in community, especially within the church, both at the local level, and in the broader, wider church, as we are, you and I, through the Maine Council of Churches. We are meant to be connected, just like trees are. We, too, are meant to love and help our neighbors. As Paul taught the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  

It is our hope and prayer at the Council that we can be a sort of “mycorrhizal network” connecting local congregations like yours here at Durham Meeting with others all around the state. Like trees who are connected through vast root systems, we can share what nourishes us. We can send distress signals when someone among us is in danger or under attack so that all of us can rally around and take action. We can look out for young ones and our elders, and we can learn from each other.

Because, like trees, it doesn’t make evolutionary sense for us to behave “like resource-grabbing individualists,” either. We, too, live longest and best in a healthy, stable “forest”—a community where we love our neighbors, even as we love ourselves.

So this morning, while I am here as your guest, let us give thanks for the “mycorrhizal” system that connects us to each other, to the wider faith community (including the Maine Council of Churches), and to our neighbors of every faith, a system that connects us to creation, and to God. Let us celebrate how we, like the trees, thrive in a network of trust, shared language, and deeply interdependent relationships that are shaped by faith, hope and love, justice, compassion and peace. May it be so. Amen.

“The Light, The Seed, The Tree of Life,” by Doug Bennett

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, April 10, 2022

How do we talk about a God who is beyond our knowing?

The opening hymn we sang this morning, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise,” praises a God beyond our comprehension: “immortal, invisible God only wise, in Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  That’s one way to talk about God: to acknowledge that God is so far beyond us we can’t begin to comprehend.  Walter Smith, who wrote the hymn doesn’t even try. 

We Quakers often take a different path.  Sometimes we talk about ‘that of God within.’  That’s pretty inspecific.

Often we speak often of the Light, or the Light Within.  (And it isn’t a ”Light inaccessible hid from our eyes” that we’re talking about.)  We often ask that people be “held in the Light,” and we ask that others “hold us in the Light” in difficult times.  This is Light we claim to be able to experience, and this has become our preferred way of talking about God or Spirit or Jesus. 

Of course, it’s a metaphor.  We don’t literally mean we worship Light in the same way we might imagine a group of people worshipping a volcano or fire; it’s not even like worshipping the great and powerful Oz.  We know words will fail us when we speak of God.  Words can’t really capture the power or the majesty of God.  Words can’t really convey the fullness of God’s love for us.  So, we use a term that gestures at some of what we comprehend about God.  As I say, it’s a metaphor. 

Early Friends (and not just Friends) found this idea of God as Light in the Bible.  It’s often a metaphor there.  Here are some familiar verses

Isaiah 9:2      The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. 

Matthew 4:16    The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Goodness!  There’s Matthew showing us Jesus quoting Isaiah!

John 8:12      Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 

Ephesians 5:8     For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.

Drawing from that passage, early Friends called themselves The Children of the Light. 

It’s a very powerful and suggestive metaphor.  When it’s there, Light makes things clear to us.  Light warms us and comforts us.  Light is everywhere.  These are features of Light: that it comforts us, and that it can be anywhere.  We’re saying God is something like this too.  But it’s a metaphor; again, it’s not Light that we worship. 

I find this metaphor of the Light most helpful when I bring to mind that Light can be searching, that it can reveal what is in dark corners, that it can strip us bare, reveal what we would like to conceal.  But we use it less often this way. 

God is more than we can ever wrap our minds around.  That’s a reason we resort to metaphors.  When we resort to a metaphor we’re saying ‘God is sort of like this, in some ways. 

This use of a metaphor, it seems to me, is akin to Jesus’s use of parables.  Most of Jesus’s teaching come to us as parables rather than as rules to follow or dos and don’ts.  We’re meant to learn something from the parable, and we do, but sometimes the parable helps us see that what we’re to learn is more complicated than any simple rule.  We’re learning a way of thinking and learning a way of being that’s beyond simple laws or rules.  Teaching us through parables is a better way to learn that.  But it’s also a warning that we shouldn’t think the lesson can be reduced to something simple or clear-cut. 

It’s the same with a metaphor.  When we remember it’s just a metaphor, we need to remember not to take it too literally – not to settle into thinking that God IS Light – or that’s the totality of God.

I’ve been reading some writings of early Friends.  Here is Isaac Penington, an important early Quaker, and a wonderful writer.  In one of his works, shortly after he began considering himself a Quaker, he wrote of the Savior in this way:

He is the tree of life … whose leaves have virtue in them to heal the nations. He is the plant of righteousness, the plant of God’s right hand. Hast thou ever known such a plant in thee, planted there by the right hand of God?

“He is the tree of life.”  That is another wonderful metaphor – the tree of life planted inside us.

It puts me in mind of another marvelous metaphor much used by early Friends, used perhaps as often as they spoke of the Light.  This is the idea of talking about an indwelling God, the God within, as The Seed.  This metaphor, too, has Biblical roots. 

Here is Matthew 13:31-32   He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven  is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

Many of us will remember the parable of the sower that is in three gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke.  That, too, is about God as “The Seed.”

Here is another take on the Seed:

John 12:23-25    Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.

Here is 1 John 3:9       No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

Just like the Light, or the Light Within, the Seed is a powerful image.  It, too, is just a metaphor, but it calls out or suggests different aspects of the nature of God and of our possible relationship with God.  I think that’s one reason early Friends didn’t just settle on one metaphor, but shifted from metaphor to metaphor: the Light, the Seed, the Tree of Life, and many others. 

This metaphor of the Seed helps us see God in a different way.  The Light is just there.  But the Seed needs to be tended.  That’s like the tree of life.  It’s just a seed unless it is given the right kind of attention.  If it’s not given the right kind of attention, it may dry up. 

Early Friends sometimes talked, too, of another Seed; this one they called the Seed of the serpent.  Human beings could give their attention to one or to the other.  One of those Seeds would grow, and the other would not.  It’s a choice you make.  Without care and attention from you, it’s the Seed of the serpent that will flourish in you. 

This is very different from Light and Darkness.  There are two Seeds.  We can tend one or we can tend the other will decide which will grow.  If we give ourselves over to greed or envy or hatred, it is the Seed of the Serpent that will grow. 

The metaphor of the Light has been a familiar one since I first encountered Quakers.  I think it has become so common, so used, so overworked, that it’s become a little unhelpful.  It has less potency to help me see God.  These other metaphors are helping me other aspects of God, and thus becoming more useful to me in my spiritual life. 

And I’m finding these three images together, these metaphors of the Light, the Seed and the Tree of Life very helpful to me.  Together, the three metaphors, bring to mind something growing, changing, life-filled.

also posted on Riverview Friend

“Desmond and the Very Mean Word,” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams

The April 3 message at Durham Friends Meeting was a reading of this book by Cindy Wood. The book is one of those distributed by the Meeting to teachers in this area as part of the Meeting’s Social Justice Enrichment Project.

Desmond and the Very Mean Word, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, illustrated by A. G. Ford

An actual event from the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s childhood forms the heart of a story about the difficulties and rewards of forgiveness. Young Desmond proudly rides his new bike through the streets of the township when he encounters a group of aggressive boys who taunt him with a “very mean word.” Desmond struggles with his own feelings of anger and retribution, but, after wise counsel from trusted mentor Father Trevor, finds his way to forgive. 

Oh God, Eternal Friend and Guide

OH GOD, ETERNAL FRIEND AND GUIDE – closing hymn at Durham Friends Meeting, March 19, 2022

Worship in Song p. 175; words by Lewy Olfson, music by John B. Dykes

Oh God, eternal friend and guide, I feel you ever by my side.

Through times of darkness, doubt, and stress, Through times of pain and hopelessness,

However deep my doubt or shame, I hear you call me by my name.

Oh God, my all-forgiving friend, You journey with me to the end.

My step may falter, foot may stray, As endlessly I lose my way;

Though weak my purpose, lax my will, I know your love is with me still.

My cries for help go not unheard. Your mercy shines in act and word.

Your grace designed to make me whole, Your gentleness to heal my soul.

For this alone I sing your praise: That you are with me all my days.

“Wangari’s Trees of Peace,” by Jeanette Winter

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 13, 2022

Today’s message at Durham Friends Meeting was a reading of Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace. (Thank you to Wendy Schlotterbeck for the reading.) This book and many others have been donated by this Meeting to schools in the region surrounding us.

Here’s a summary of the story: As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Wangari was surrounded by trees. But years later when she returns home, she is shocked to see whole forests being cut down, and she knows that soon all the trees will be destroyed. So Wangari decides to do something—and starts by planting nine seedlings in her own backyard. And as they grow, so do her plans . . . This true story of Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a shining example of how one woman’s passion, vision, and determination inspired great change.

Clarion Books, 2018

As an opening hymn, we sang “I Am An Acorn, words and music by Carol Johnson, #242 in Worship in Song

I am an acorn, the package, the seed.

God is within me and God is the tree.

I am unfolding the way I should be.

Carved in the palm of his hand.

Carved in the palm of his hand.

“Welcoming a Vision,” by Mey Hasbrook

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 6, 2022

In discerning today’s message, an earlier expectation requires broadening. While writing is an option for some, it is not an option for all. So what I thought would be us writing a letter to the Divine –  the heart of our own hearts –  will become a prayer to the Divine. The prayer will be invited at the message closing. Here’s a query for today, and to which we’ll come back

●from a Quaker named William – Is thy heart right?
●and from today’s closing hymn – Who in God’s heav’n has passed beyond [our] vision?

~~

Since November, I’ve been reading and re-reading Chapter 12 of II Corinthians, all the while navigating life at a strong current. This letter is attributed to Apostle Paul and addresses a young, fractious, floundering church.

Ch. 12 is pretty intense:  from visions beyond words gifted by the Divine, to unavoidable and relentless pain, to divine grace. Paradoxically, weakness can open a path to strength; indeed, herein is the power of Christ, which shapes my life as the power of Love. 

Paul gives this story:  Three times I appealed to the Lord about the thorn in my flesh, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So –
claims Paul – I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me – which for today’s message, let’s hold as ‘the power of Love’.
Paul continues – Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

A friend of my late stepmother has become a pen pal, and it was she who sent me the reference to this scripture.  Her card arrived after I finished a series of major medical tests, which began due to a diagnosis of a chronic benign condition.  Yet tests evolved to eliminate concerns about cancer.  Indeed, the passage came at an opportune time. 

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me – remember, we’re holding ‘the power of Christ’ as ‘the power of Love’.

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

~~

Paul and the other apostles were traveling ministers, as was William Savery circa the late 18th century.  His national home was the newly-formed United States, mired in partisanship and conquest.  William’s ministry led him to England, and his sermon drawn upon today is titled “An Age of Uncommon Events”*; it’s from 1796.

He reminds Friends, [W]hile we are endeavouring to seek after truth, do not let us be afraid of coming to the knowledge of it.

Recognizing the budding natural science of the age, William commends one science worth them all.  He goes on to explain how this is to know God and one’s self, an inquiry of thought as well as feeling.

The impact of such knowing, explains William, enlarges the love of professors of Christianity –  so, those who claim to be Christian.

He calls upon the standard of Christ’s prayer amid agony, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
And he calls Friends to a prayer, Forgive us our trespasses, only as we forgive them that trespass against us.  Yes, William includes only intentionally.

I am new to William Savery, and found “An Age of Uncommon Events” in search of Quaker references to II Corinthians. 
What arises clearly for today’s message from William’s sermon and Chapter 12 of II Cor. is to honor the heart ache expressed in both – the type of heart ache from being broken open by the Light, by Christ who is the living path of Love.
Also, to face the paradox of heart ache and hardship with the presence of Christ – that is knowing that Christ’s presence is powerful, gifting inner strength through Love.

~~ 
Friends, it is time now to prepare for our prayer to the Divine. For those of you who are able and wish to write this down, feel free. Most importantly, follow whatever form to which you feel called. 

May we be faithful in listening to Spirit, and to welcome continuing revelation. May our worship inspire us to a vision of expansive Love, beginning right here where we are – among one another – even in heart ache, even amid hardship, and always in the presence of Christ.

Transitioning to prayer, I return to the query, and share excerpts from today’s texts:

QUERY
●from Friend William, Is thy heart right?
●from today’s closing hymn, Who in God’s heav’n has passed beyond [our] vision?

EXCERPT from Ch. 12 of II Cor.
Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish…

EXCERPT from “An Age of Uncommon Events”

Oh may the God of all mercy, wisdom, and power, hasten this day; enlarge the love of professors of Christianity one towards another, throw down all the walls of opposition, which were built up in the day of departure from the fountain of living water, and bring us again to drink at Shiloh’s stream; that all the heritage may drink at the fountain itself, and the world once more rejoice in knowing him to reign and to rule over all, whose right it is, and ever will remain. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
*“An Age of Uncommon Events” is available online through the Quaker Heritage Press web site.

“Prayers for Healing, Peace Making, Love and Compassion Among Us and the Wider World,” by Mey Hasbrook

Inspired after an extended time of duress ~Mey Hasbrook, November 20, 2021

_/|\_ _/|\_ _/|\_

May the Spirit of the Living God fall afresh upon us:

into our hearts and among our communities,

alongside neighbors and opponents,

moving us toward strangers and the estranged.

May we who mourn on the day called “thanksgiving” be held with care, even wrapping one’s arms around one’s self.

May we who gather to break bread seek to mend rifts that distance us from one another.

May we who are “alone” this season invite the blessed company of the Earth, the angelic host, and those who’ve come before us.

May we who are exhausted be gentle and kind to ourselves.

May we who are ill find hope and wholeness wherever is possible.

May we who are materially, spiritually, and/or emotionally rich especially extend generosity with openhearts and hands.

May we who carry hurts and hindrances lay them down at the banks of the Living Waters.

May we who face challenges beyond our imagination find renewed comfort in Psalm 23 and the music of songbirds.

May the Spirit of the Living God fall afresh upon us.

_/|\_ _/|\_ _/|\_

“Becoming Quaker,” by Joyce Gibson

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 9, 2022

G’ morning Y’all,

Happy New Year!  IT IS GOOD TO  BE HERE WITH EVERYONE.  WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE COMMUNITES I BELONG TO, THIS MEETING IS HIGH ON MY LIST, JUST BEYOND MY FAMILY.  MORE DISCUSSION ABOUT COMMUNITY COMES LATER.

EACH TIME I OFFER A MESSAGE I CHOOSE A TOPIC I AM STRUGGLING WITH; THIS TIME IS NO DIFFERENT.  I HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT WHETHER I AM A QUAKER.  HOW DO I KNOW WHEN I BECOME A QUAKER?  DOES ATTENDING OR BECOMING A MEMBER OF A MEETING MAKE ONE A QUAKER?  WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A QUAKER?  THUS, THIS MORNING, I HOPE TO THINK WITH YOU ABOUT WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A QUAKER.  IS  BEING A DURHAM QUAKER DIFFERENT FROM BEING A PORTLAND OR WOODBROOKE QUAKER?

HOW DO WE MANIFEST OUR QUAKERISM?  FIRST, I THOUGHT ABOUT OUR TESTIMONIES AND OUR PRINCIPLES.  GEORGE FOX IS NORMALLY THOUGHT OF AS OUR FOUNDER, AT LEAST THE PERSON WHO IS KNOWN FOR ‘DISCOVERING THE LIGHT’, AFTER A LONG SPIRITUAL QUEST WHICH BEGAN IN HIS LATE TEENS BECAUSE HE FELT THAT CHRISTIANS HE KNEW WERE NOT ‘LIVING THEIR BELIEFS’.  GORDON BROWNE, WHO WROTE A PENDLE HILL PAMPHLET CALLED INTRODUCING QUAKERS (Adapted from a Pendle Hill-On-The-Road presentation, Newbury, VT, Nov. 2-3,1990), SUMMARIZED THE PRINCIPLES OF FOX BASED ON FOX’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE BIBLE WHICH HE KNEW INTIMATELY:

  • That God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of an intermediary priest or ritual;
  • That there is in all persons an in-dwelling Seed or Christ or Light (he used all these metaphors) which is of God and which, if they will but heed it, will guide them and shape their lives in accordance with the will of God;
  • That true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words or rituals, which Fox called “empty forms”, but comes only from direct experiences of God, known through the Seed or Christ or Light within;
  • That the Scriptures can be understood only as one enters into the Spirit which gave them forth;
  • That there is an ocean of darkness and death—of sin and misery—over the world but also an ocean of light and of love, which flows over the ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God; and
  • That the power and love of God are over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious so that all of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental.  The traditional outward sacraments, again characterized as empty forms, are to be discarded in favor of the spiritual reality they symbolize. (Pages, 2, 3 from Introducing Quakers, 1990)

You can imagine that these ideas did not play well in the 17th century, though based Biblically, and Fox’s public ministry was not welcomed by the authorities in the churches.  Though he found thousands of seekers and influenced his ideas to be spread by others, (and eventually across the pond to Boston and Cape Cod in 1656, and 1657 respectively), he paid heavily personally and physically with imprisonments and beatings because of what he believed.

THEN THERE ARE QUAKER TESTIMONIES.  DURING THE TIME I BECAME A MEMBER OF DURHAM MEETING (THIS DOES NOT MEAN I BECAME A QUAKER, Y’ALL!) IN 2015, OUR THEN PASTOR, DOUG GWYN AND OTHERS REFERENCED OUR TESTIMONIES AS AN ACRONYM:  SPICES—SIMPLICITY, PEACE, INTEGRITY, COMMUNITY, EQUALITY, AND SUSTANIBILITY.  LIVING YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THESE TESTIMONIES DEPENDS ON HOW YOU INTERPRET THEM, BUT YOU CAN CERTAINLY FIND EXAMPLES IN OUR FAITH AND PRACTICE BOOKS FROM NEW ENGLAND YEARLY MEETING; ACTUALLY, BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, SOME OF US WERE LEARNING HOW FOLKS IN OUR COMMUNITY VIEWED THE TESTIMONIES THROUGH SHARING THEIR FAITH JOURNIES IN THE ADULT EDUCATION CLASSES.

A BOOK I WANT TO SHARE QUOTES FROM IS A SHORT ONE BY GEOFFREY DURHAM, CALLED WHAT DO QUAKERS BELIEVE ? (Christian Alternative Books, 2019).  HE WRITES REGULARLY ABOUT QUAKERS, AND IS ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF QUAKER QUEST, AN OUTREACH PROJECT TO INTRODUCE FOLKS TO QUAKERISM.  IT IS A PAPERBACK OF ONLY 68 PAGES, WITH CLEAR EVERYDAY LANGUAGE.  HERE ARE A FEW THINGS HE OFFERS:

  • Quakers believe that formal creeds are unnecessary, because what matters to them is the truth and integrity of personal experience.
  • Quakers believe that religious doctrines and dogmas are unhelpful and should be set aside.
  • Quakers believe that regular attendance at Quaker meetings has the power to change people, help them find meaning and give them a purpose in life.
  • Quakers believe that they should be guided by love and what love requires of them.  (Pages 9, 10)

HOW DO WE DISCERN WHAT LOVE REQUIRES OF US? 

(BY THE WAY, BROWNE REPORTS THAT EARLY FRIENDS CALLED THEMSELVES “FRIENDS OF TRUTH” OR “PUBLISHERS OF TRUTH” NOT THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS…THE TRUTH THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT WAS CAPITAL “T” AND IT BELONGED TO GOD; IT WAS ETERNAL, UNCHANGING, AND HUMAN BEINGS WOULD EXPERIENCE GLIMPSES OF IT AND GAIN FRAGMENTS OF IT BY BEING OPEN AND SENSITIVE TO THE LEADINGS OF THE SEED, THE CHRIST, THE LIGHT WITHIN).  QUAKERS BELIEVE THAT REVELATION OF GOD’STRUTH DOES NOT END WITH THE BIBLE, BUT CAN BE REALIZED THROUGH PEOPLE’S EXPERIENCES TODAY. 

SO, WE HAVE PRINCIPLES, TESTMONIES, THINGS WE BELIEVE, INCLUDING TRUTH TELLING . . . NOW WHAT?

  • DOES UNDERSTANDING THESE PRINCIPLES AND TESTIMONIES HELP US BECOME QUAKERS?
  • WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE BECOMING QUAKER?
  • DID YOU TAKE COURSES?  DID YOU JUST SOAK IT ALL IN BY ATTENDING MEETINGS?
  • DO YOU HAVE A QUAKER MENTOR OR SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR? 
  • DID YOU JUST GROW UP QUAKER AND LEARNED THROUGH YOUR FAMILY AND OTHER FRIENDS?  OR DID YOU BECOME A CONVINCED QUAKER FROM SOME OTHER RELIGIOUS TRADITION?
  • DOES BECOMING QUAKER REQUIRE INDIVIDUAL EFFORT AND COMMUNITY EXPERIENCES?

BEGINNING YOUR QUAKER SPIRITUAL JOURNEY: HERE ARE SOME THINGS I KNOW ABOUT BECOMING A QUAKER…

  1. LEARNING FROM OTHERS:  WE HAVE QUITE A POOL OF PEOPLE WHO EXHIBIT THE PRINCIPLES OF QUAKERISM @DURHAM; JUST WATCHING THEM AND UNDERSTANDING THEIR ACTIONS OFFER ‘WHAT PRACTICING QUAKER PRINCIPLES LOOKS LIKE. You can name them, and some are here today, right on the screen.
  2. LETTING GO OF THINKING YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF YOURSELF (AND OTHERS THINGS IN OUR WORLD); THIS IS THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGE OF OUR SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.  ROBERT GRISWOLD SHARES IN HIS PAMPHLET ON “MARKING THE QUAKER PATH” (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 439, 2016) THAT NO ONE TOLD HIM THAT BEING ON THIS SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO BECOME A QUAKER, IS A LIFELONG PROCESS.

YOUR EGO AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS IN OUR WORLD, COMPETE MIGHTLY TO PREVENT YOU FROM CONNECTING TO THAT “STILL SMALL VOICE” OF GOD.  THE GOD WHO LOVES AND ACCEPTS YOU UNCONDITIONALLY, BY THE WAY!

In NEYM’s 1985 Faith and Practice we learn about Waiting Upon the Lord, p.97:

           When you come to your meetings . . . what do you do? . . . Do you walk in the “Light of your own fire and the sparks which you have kindled?”  Or rather, do you sit down in True Silence, resting from your own Will and Workings, and waiting upon the Lord, fixed with your minds in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you, until the Lord breaths life in you, refresheth you, and prepares you . . . that you may offer unto him a pure and spiritual sacrifice? (William Penn:  Works, ed. Joseph Besse, 1726, vol 1, p.219.  “A tender visitation,” published 1677.

  • AN EXPERIENCE WITH GOD.  An experience of Divine Reality changes us from fearful, wounded, and lost people into a safe, healing, and compassionate people on a meaningful journey.  With this experience we come to be aware that we are at home in the world and at peace.  It isn’t good enough to think we’ve found the path, or to believe we have found the path, or to hope we have found the path.  We have to find the path and stay on it.  And, to have this experience, we have to stop and wait and be silent, inside as well as outside. (Page 8, Griswold, 2016)

I HAD BEGUN TO GO ON SILENT RETREATS WITH A GROUP CALLED, CHURCH OF THE SAVIOR IN MARYLAND; THIS RELATIONSHIP HAD BEGUN WITH OUR CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH IN LITTLETON, MA WHEN WE DECIDED TO RE FRESH OURSELVES SPIRITUALLY, WORK ON OUR INWARD AND OUTWARD JOURNEYS AS A CHURCH COMMUNITY.  WE STAYED ON THE MAILING LIST AFTER OUR EXPERIENCE, AND SILENT RETREATS WERE PART OF THEIR REGULAR PRACTICE.  I ATTENDED A COUPLE OF THEM AND ON MY LAST ONE WAS CONVINCED BY A LOVING COUPLE TO CONSIDER FINDING A SPIRITUAL ADVISOR FOR DEEPER SPIRITUAL GROWTH.

*I FOUND A SPRITUAL ADVISOR WHO WAS QUAKER. EARLY ON IN OUR SESSIONS, SHE HAD A PRACTICE WHERE SHE WOULD STOP LISTENING TO MY ISSUES, AND ASK THAT WE STOP TO DISCERN WHAT GOD THINKS ABOUT THE SITUATION.  FOR MONTHS I WOULD CLOSE MY EYES, JUST LOOK AROUND, THINK SHE WAS OUT OF HER HEAD, OR WONDER WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME THAT I COULD NOT HEAR GOD SPEAKING TO ME IN THE SILENCE.  THEN ONE DAY, I HEARD HIM, THOUGH IT DID NOT HAPPEN EVERY SESSION, I BEGAN TO LET GO AND CONNECT.

  • DISCIPLINES:  INDIVIDUAL ACTIVITY, SUCH AS PRAYING; LISTENING, BUILDING THE TRUST NEEDED TO CULTIVATE A HEART THAT CAN HEAR AND EYES THAT CAN SEE ALL THAT IS SAID, OR NOT SAID; WORKING ON SPIRITUAL TASKS WITH OTHERS.
  • Becoming a Quaker is ALWAYS A WORK IN PROGRESS. 
  • NEXT WEEK: HOW DO WE HELP AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER ON OUR JOURNEYS—AS A COMMUNITY? 

“Are You Engaged in a Spiritual Adventure with Our Meeting?” by Joyce Gibson

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 16, 2022

Today, I want to follow-up on my message from last week on Becoming a Quaker.  In thinking through our testimonies, community is the one that strikes me as critically important, and was the topic that a few of you commented on last week, as well.  Are we a distinct community?  What distinguishes us from other Christian or Quaker communities?  Many people join us from other faith traditions that feel more restrictive than ours, and are attracted by our belief that Christ, the Light or Spirit resides in every human, and that no priest or intermediary is necessary.  For me, nurturing that Divine Relationship is a challenge, and perhaps one I need more collective education about.  Daphne Clement once told me that just showing up was the most important thing to do in learning to be a Quaker; finding meaning and purpose here together is where we learn about each other and Quakerism.

Or maybe people are attracted to our understanding that God is LOVE for everyone, as described in one of our principles according to George Fox:  That the power and love of God are over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious so that all of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental.  The traditional outward sacraments, (such as crucifixes, rosaries, statues, palm leaves) again characterized as empty forms, are to be discarded in favor of the spiritual reality they symbolize.

How is the Love of God manifested in our community?

Do we have a corporate responsibility as a community of Quakers to share and demonstrate God’s LOVE?  The ten commandments offer guidance for building community, many asking us to take care of each other.  In Exodus 20: 2-17,  Moses relays a message to the people from God, how God wants to be regarded, and how they are to deal with each other:  These come from the Bible in contemporary language, THE MESSAGE)

  1. No other gods, only me.
  2. No carved gods of any size, shape or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly, or walk or swim;  (no smart phones, TV shows, internet addictions?)
  3. No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter;
  4. Observe the sabbath, to keep it holy.  Work six days and do everything you need to do.  But the seventh is a Sabbath to God, your God.
  5. Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God is giving you;
  6. No murder;
  7. No adultery;
  8. No stealing;
  9. No lies about your neighbor;
  10.  No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey.  Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbors.  Can we use the commandments as one guide to sustain community?

Here is what Faith and Practice (1986) tells us about community:

a)…While Friends had great respect for the individual person, the real unit in the society of Friends has always been the Meeting (p. 54, chapter 1, Quaker Faith)

In another section, there is a quote about Meeting as a Caring Community:

b)…To share in the experience of the Presence in corporate worship, to strive to let Divine Will guide one’s life, to uphold others in prayer, to live in a sense of unfailing Love, is to participate in a spiritual adventure in which Friends come to know one another and to respect one another at a level where differences of age or sex, of wealth or position, of education or vocation, of race or nation are all irrelevant.  Within this sort of fellowship, as in a family, griefs and joys, fear and hopes, failures and accomplishments are naturally shared, even individuality and independence are scrupulously respected. (Pps. 120-121, The Meeting as a Caring Community).

I think the magic words herein are: to participate in a spiritual adventure in which Friends come to know one another and to respect one another.  Are you engaged in a spiritual adventure with our Meeting?  How can we provide or promote such an opportunity for each of us?

I find myself spending more time on Quaker projects than I imagined I would; and when I think back to my youth and early adulthood, I could not imagine using my time this way!  I am so impressed with our young people’s sense of God and their relationship with God.  Some (like me) have been living in a clue-free zone about God for a long time.

It could be that we need a re-charging of our batteries, of our adventurous selves since we have been trying our best to manage the pandemic– in our families, at work, in the larger community, and certainly here at Meeting.  One of our Friends from the Putney, Vermont Meeting, has been facilitating workshops called “Reflecting on Our Collective Well-Being:  Grieving, Healing, and Community, wherever he has been invited, and I think the title is an apt one to consider for ourselves:  A conversation about our collective well-being would be useful to me.

How do we discern how to be a more caring community during a pandemic?  How do we discern our own role in helping to reduce the tensions, and challenges brought on in our regular everyday lives?

I believe that there are a number of ways that we already participate in spiritual adventures with each other, and it is one of the reasons I have joined a few different groups here at Durham, and affiliated with some in the New England Yearly Meeting.  Thus, when you join a committee, volunteer with the youth, call one of us to check on us, serve on Trustees or Nominating Committee, or engage in continuous prayer for the Meeting, you are participating in spiritual adventures. 

There is another way that many find much more powerful though—when we worship together and feel the Presence.  Michael Birkel, faculty at Earlham College, calls it the “The Collective Dimension of Worship”…Worship in community is more than prayer in solitude.  It is not simply common purpose but a felt sense of togetherness that joins worshipers.  We can experience one another at depths that challenge our experience to describe them (p. 44, Silence and Witness)

There is another, higher dimension of worship, that some have experienced that comes when we are together.  Thomas Kelly (one of my prayer mentors) wrote about it this wayIn the Quaker practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when an electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshipers.  A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, a stillness that can be felt is over all, and the worshipers are gathered into a unity and synthesis of life which is amazing indeed.  A quickening Presence pervades  us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and blending our spirits within a superindividual Life and Power…(The Gathered Meeting, reprinted in the Eternal Promise, Richmond, Indiana:  Friends United Pres, 1977, p. 72)  THIS PRACTICE IN HIS PRESENCE IS UNIQUELY OURS!

Before leaving I must share a recent experience I had with a few women who identify as Quaker.  I was stunned at how one person introduced herself  because I had NEVER HEARD ANYONE COMBINE THEIR INTRODUCTION AS SHE DID.  We were asked to give our names, Meeting affiliation, pronouns, etc.   She used her tribal name and quaker as part of her identification, together, separate from identifying her Meeting; it sounded like her title—Wampanoag Quaker.  She went on to explain to us that her people view themselves as Community first, and that seeking a spiritual home, Quakers were the closest she and her people could find where community was valued as a priority.  This person embraces the DIVINE as part of her natural life; it was refreshing to behold. 

“The Presence of the Holy Spirit,” by Martha Hinshaw Sheldon

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 2, 2022

We come together to share, to lament, to share joys, to praise, to support, to be a community in a place in time, in a place in space, a building on land that sustains and reminds us of our history.   On the lands of the Wabanaki peoples. 

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.” — Teresa of Ávila, a Catholic nun

This week.

Despair and hope. The essence of life, essence of faith, essence of the Holy Spirit.  The only story worth sharing along with a large dose of love. 

Anti-Apartheid Leader and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Funeral yesterday.  Image of Desmond Tutu dancing in pink robes, being carried in a plain pine box.  A life force of love and hope. 

Wildfires in Colorado – Sandra and Tom looking out their front door over the neighbours houses into the smoke and fire blowing across the land.  A force of nature.

Death of Corrymeela leader – Kate, a force to be reckoned with.  A light of joy and humour.   My friend Paul writing about my friend Kate.   ‘Insightful leader, wonderful sense of humour, not always my friend but always my friend.’

Anniversary of Wounded knee massacre in 1890.  The Lakota people refused to assimilate and did not allow westward expansion through their territories.   A force of evil destroying vision.

Despair and hope. 

One night long ago in a land far away. 

On the road to Bethlehem one Christmas eve while teaching in the Ramallah Friends Schools, I was reminded again of the Spirit eternal presence.  We meet every so often and the memory sustains me.  This time I was walking with a large assembly of people from around the world, people who had started 2 years before in Seattle and walked across the United States and Europe sharing the words of the Prince of Peace.  The original group grew, doubled and tripled, as people along the way left their families and homes to join the fellowship and the message.

I joined the group in Jerusalem at 4:00 in the afternoon.  At first we talked quietly in small groups getting to know one another, hearing and sharing experiences of the journey and the excitement of knowing that this was the last leg of a very long road.  As dusk darkened to night and we descended the hills to the fields around Bethlehem the talking stopped.  Except for occasional whispers, we walked in silence. 

I, as the shepherds long ago, felt very small out under the vast black sky.  My eyes and the eyes of those around me were wide with anticipation, wondering what might happen and eager to soak up all that the shepherds might have seen and anticipated. 

Both the Magi from the east and the modern pilgrims from around the world came far distances to seek the birthplace of the Son of God, to learn more about the Prince of Peace, to hear again of the Holy Spirit.  They left their homes and families to witness, to see, to understand, to praise and to share the message of peace with others.

I was reminded again of the eternal presence of the Holy Spirit that Christmas eve many years ago.  A hush had descended upon the group.   The night was inky black.  There were no streetlights or cars rushing by or the glow from city lights on the horizon.  Darkness was all around. 

Standing in the crowd I felt alone at first and then realized there was a great Spirit in and around me that filled me with the certainty that I was not and would never be alone.  That black cool night warmed, and the light of the stars brightened the sky.  The road had been long and arduous, my own as well as that of my fellow travellers.  But the awareness and certainty of the presence of the Holy Spirit was with us, in our hearts, our souls, our bones, again and we would continue our lives and remember this joy. 

May this new year be a time to know the presence of the Holy spirit even while remembering times of sorrow, to be quiet amidst the noise, to be alone with the Holy Spirit among the crowds, and to meet again as a reminder of love, joy and steadfast presence. 

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness” – Desmon Tutu

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.” Teresa of Ávila, a Catholic nun

“Annunciation,” by Denise Levertov

Read as call to worship, Durham Friends Meeting, December 26, 2021

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

“The Story of the Crowd at Christmas,” by Colin Saxton (FUM)

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 19, 2021

Luke 2:8-20 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Some of you may remember a time in history when a daily newspaper was delivered—in print—to your home. No, really! And it had actual news in it—of international, national and local interest. Really! Actual news?!? You can google it—and see I am telling the truth.

We had one of those newspaper when I was growing up that included a section devoted to feature stories—less the who, what, when, and where of the days events—and more articles focused around human interest. In my newspaper, this was called the Living Section.

About the time I was in middle-school, the Living Section began running a daily feature called People. It was always on page 2 and it chronicled the comings and goings of all of the cultural celebrities—the actresses, models, singers, athletes and politicians. Whenever possible, it also included any noteworthy local people—the self-proclaimed movers and shakers close to home. Thanks to the people section, the rest of us could keep up on the opinions, fashion choices, and activities of the famous, fabulous, wealthy and beautifulthose near to us and far away.

In all of the years I read the paper, not one person I actually knew was ever listed. Many of the same people would show up, over and over again, in this section—but the rest of us, actually the vast majority of us, never had our photos, our names, or anything else about us ever included here.

For whatever reason, our plain, ordinary, less significant or more hidden lives did not qualify as worthy to show-up within a section devoted to, at least by the standards of the newspaper, the people who mattered most. In a world just dying to know the latest gossip around the stars, there simply was no time or space to waste on the dimly-lit lives of a mere members of the crowd.

While the Bible certainly has its own share of big personalities, one of my favorite characters throughout the text—and especially in the NT—is the “crowd.” It is a group that gets mentioned, in one form or another, about 200 times in the NT alone. These are the ones who follow Jesus nearly everywhere he goes. They are curious, desperate for help, eager to hear him teach, astonished when he says the Kingdom belongs to people just like them. The crowd is comprised of potential followers, happy fence sitters, and rabid opponents—sometimes all in the same person. Most of these nameless and faceless people we know nothing about—not their political persuasions, their fashion tips, thoughts on the latest diet plan or social controversy. All we know is they are part of the mass of humanity who are open to…and maybe even eager for…God to show up and do something to heal their sickness, rekindle their hope, free them from their burdens, forgive their sins, and restore a broken world to something more just, more peaceable and more humane than they know in the moment.

I encourage you to read the NT from the perspective of the crowd—at some point—to place yourself squarely within that community. Listen from their perspective. See from the place of one who stands in the back of the room rather than the front. Consider the difference it might make to watch the drama of God unfold through the eyes of one who may just be grateful and surprised to be included at all…rather than focusing on whether life is happening the way I want, planned, or demand.

Crowd members come from all walks of life in NT—but most often they’re the lower class—the uneducated, the common, the ones so ordinary they fade into the backdrop. They were tax-collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all shapes and sizes. Among them, you will find fisherman, farmers, peasant women and more than a few shepherds.

 In this morning’s scripture reading, we heard the familiar story of angels lighting up the night sky and bringing glorious news to a group of unlikely recipients—shepherds. For whatever reason, news of this transforming moment in time—one on which history pivots—comes to commoners rather than the politically privileged, members of the religious hierarchy, the affluent or the well-known. These are just shepherds. No accounts. Ordinaries. Unexceptionals. Those who seemingly would be last to be in the loop on something this significant.

But there they were, living their ordinary lives—out in the field tending the sheep when the brilliant glory of an angel pierces the darkness. Terrified by this visitation, the angel tries to calm their appropriate fear with news of great joy, hope and peace.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

            And just in case any of the shepherds missed the significance of what they were hearing & seeing, a whole host of angels show up, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”  This, Friends, is breaking news & shepherds have front row seats

Our foremothers and fathers in the Quaker faith sometimes wrote and spoke of a Day of Visitation” –a period of time or times in everyone’s life when they are open to hearing the invitational voice of God and responding to it. For the ones who are attentive and obedient to respond, a life and connection to God will grow and flourish in them and they will be nourished and nurtured into a greater and stronger faith. It is a day/time when God shows up in a way we can see/hear—and often we do.

But for those who close their eyes and ears and hearts and minds to God’s coming—if the Light is continually ignored or rebelled against, it is likely to grow increasingly dim over time and one day may disappear completely. For whatever reason, we can learn to ignore the voice of SP and even the blinding light of an angel army.

Maybe on this day of visitation, the shepherds had no choice but to see and respond. Maybe this experience was so compelling that they had to go immediately to Bethlehem to find the child. But I wonder… Many times, as it is recorded in the biblical text, God intervenes in some sort of amazing way and plenty people seem to miss it. My favorite example comes from John 12, where the very voice of God speaks in an audible way within the hearing of a large crowd. Some heard it for what it was and praised God. Others thought it was “just an angel;” others confused it for thunder… I wonder whether there were any shepherds among the bunch who missed the angel visitation altogether or confused it for a lightning storm?

What we know is a small band of shepherds heard and saw. Then they got up and went. They acted on what they heard from the angels and moved to experience the Holy One for themselves.

I wish—I wish—we knew more of what happens to them and through them from that point on…but remember these are just members of the crowd. Their stories never make the front page or even page 2 of the Living Section. All we know is they return to the field—they go home and back to work—praising and glorifying God for everything they were privileged to hear and see. They go back into their ordinary lives having encountered a gaggle (not sure that is the right term…) of angels and having seen the Messiah.

I want to believe, and in fact do believe, they did return to the anonymity of their lives but not unchanged. I have known too many people who have had their lives lit up by angels, who have heard the Voice of God rattle their windows, who felt the Spirit shake their souls to know something like this is not easily forgotten. Something happens in us—and in turn through us—because God comes close and meets us.

If you read church history and as we account for the rapid spread of the gospel after the birth of Christ, the reality is it is mostly attributable to the lives and witness of the crowds rather than the well-known people. Oh, the Pauls, the Peters, the Marys and Marthas, and assorted early church leaders had their place and role—but most good historians will say it was the nameless and faceless sisters and brothers who were mostly responsible for the sudden and dramatic rise of Christianity. It was their faithful witness, their radical obedience, their spirit empowered lives and God-infused love that drew so many, many more into the fellowship of faith. Having encountered Christ, they went back to their lives and work praising and glorifying God along the way—and others noticed the difference—and felt drawn to Christ and a the Beloved Community.

            I have wondered this week about the shepherds and what happened to each of them after that first Christmas. How did they recover from something like this? Was it hard to go back to working under a night sky that was only lit by stars? I wonder, most of all, how these nobody- shepherds dealt with the somebodies who questioned their experience or tried to silence their story. Would they give in to that very real pressure or would they “remember.”

            In Hebrew the word “remember” can mean to “make present.” To remember “the Lord your God”  in the Old Testament was more than sparking a memory, it was to re-experience the very real Presence of God in that moment in time. To “remember your forefathers and mothers” was more than to kindle a nice feeling about those who have come before, it was to welcome them into that very moment in time.

            I don’t understand all of the mechanics of how this work—but I believe it and have experienced it. And so, I wondered how the shepherds remembered the angelic visit. Did they re-mind one another…so that they could keep that experience alive and vivid…so that it would continue to strengthen and grow their faithfulness?

            We live, I believe, in a world that bends us toward forgetfulness. Though it is subtle and often unintentional, there is a quiet assault on our experiences of the holy. Too often we are encouraged to remain quiet about them. Others will work to explain away what we saw or heard. This is especially true, I think, if you are a crowd member—a nobody—whose story the world has neither time or interest to hear.

            More and more, I am convinced that most people have an angel story—or two—they can tell. But many—I fear—have stopped remembering them because no one asks or seems interested. Maybe, one of the best gifts we can give another person is the invitation to remember—and to share that story. In doing so, it just may make vivid and alive that very same presence that lit up their sky, or rattled their windows or shook their soul. And along the way, leave us and them praising and glorifying God once again.      

“Alice,” by Kitsie Hildebrandt

Part of a message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 12, 2021

Alice, by Kitsie Hildebrandt

Alice started joining our worship as an old lady.

She was a neighbor of Muriel Marston

And that was more that good enough for me, for us at Durham Meeting.

She always wore a well-worn acrylic cardigan, and was lovely.

She became a regular.

One Sunday she stood, and started to speak.

(She had not spoken out of the silent worship before.)

I didn’t know she could speak another language, when

Suddenly it struck me that she was speaking in tongues.

At a Quaker Meeting, imagine that.

And it was beautiful,

Heartfelt, sincere, fervent, pleading.

As she spoke

I felt my judgment fade away; I was able to give over

And my heart grew.

I experienced God speaking

To me, to everyone there.

I longed to hear her again, and I did.

I have shared this experience with others.

They usually frown, blink, and do that thing with their head.

As if to say, “How can that be, in a Quaker Meeting?”

I want to say, “Well. I guess you had to be there.”

“A Green Burial – Tom Frye,” by Peter Crysdale

Part of a message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 12, 2021

A Green Burial  – Tom Frye, by Peter Crysdale

Someone asked me,

How did you find your way to Durham Meeting?

I answered, “Ralph brought me!”

He brought Tom Frye too… 40 years ago – 

Both of us came and went and returned.

The other day Tommie Frye came back again,

In a simple pine box –

Laid in a hole at the Lunt –

Dug by his friends – next to Sukie, his friend 

For all those years. He decided to do 

What love does and give 

His body back to Mother Earth

In the simplest of ways. 

Back then – Tom came to the Parsonage with Ralph 

To find his way, after a long hardship. 

I came up on weekends –

Sitting at that table in the parsonage kitchen 

Tom told of his life – his profound suffering –

He was neither bitter nor vengeful – 

It was one foot after the other – hanging around

The Parsonage was an act of recovery, 

An act of Love.

One year Tom was Santa at the Meeting

Christmas party – Ruth Graham thought

He was too tall To be Santa. 

The next year she was Santa – 

Made up and clothed so no

One could tell it was her –

I knew – so did Tom. 

And that Halloween when Ralph got

Tom to lie down in an old sunken grave –

In the Cemetery behind the Parsonage.

Covered him with leaves – the kids 

Came by with their flashlights in the dark –

Tom rose – they were terrified.

God’s mischief is Love in motion.

Remember the Spring kite-flying 

Extravaganza in the Parsonage yard – 

Tom and Ralph again – 

Later every tree was festooned with a kite. 

There was Petunia the Parsonage Pig –  

Ralph brought her home – 

Because the elders complained that there 

Weren’t enough kids in the Meeting – 

Ralph said he could train pigs – 

Petunia would have none of it –

She lived in the Parsonage and got bigger

And bigger – first Day came and Ralph read 

A chapter from Charlotte’s Web in Meeting,

A row of attentive kids looked on in wonder. 

Worship is about being found by the love.  

One First Day after a huge snowfall – 

Three feet of snow – slid off

the roof of the Meetinghouse – 

Landed with a HARUMPH!!!  

The Worship Settled that day –

Someone told me 

On another First Day, Tom, 

Who rarely spoke in Meeting – 

Sang Amazing Grace – 

The Worship Settled.

We were slowly seasoned 

by a Quaker cast of Characters – 

Helen – Ruth and Lucy – Merton and Bea, 

Charlotte and Mary – John Curtis – Clarabel and

Louis – Lyda Wentworth – oh so many others –

Seasoned means absorbing the Love.

I went off to Pendle Hill and Tom moved to Freeport –

Got a job – found a love – 

Recovering takes a lifetime. Last week 

Tom moved back- was buried in the Lunt –

We stood around tossing rose petals as we covered 

His body with earth. Love welcomes us home.

“Losing and Finding Our Bearings,” by Doug Bennett

Message given at at Durham Friends Meeting, December 5, 2021

Sometimes when we’re confused, we say “let me just get my bearings, here.”  I may have just woken up from a nap.  Or I may have stumbled on a walk.  Maybe I’ve hit my head on a rafter in the basement and that’s left me woozy.  Everything seems odd; I’m disoriented or muddled.  So I say, “Let me just get my bearings, here.” 

Once I woke up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room.  I’d been traveling a good deal, changing time zones, and sleeping in unfamiliar hotels.  When I work in the dark that night I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.  But even worse, I couldn’t quite think who I was.  That was confusing and more than a little frightening. 

In those moments when I’m confused, I search for something fixed and clear that tells us who we are or what we’re doing or where we’re going.  It might be a familiar landmark that helps me get my bearings.  It might be any number of things, but it’s something I can grasp hold of that helps us get our bearings.  It needs to be something fixed, something sturdy – hopefully so fixed its permanent. 

That awful night in a strange hotel room, it was only when I tripped over my briefcase that I’d left on the floor of the room that it all came back to me.  I got my bearings.  Suddenly it all came back to me.  Once again I knew who I was and what I was doing there.  The briefcase wasn’t particularly fixed.  I kicked it a few feet when I tripped over it, but there was a familiar object filled with familiar things that put me right again in the world and in my mind.  But often, familiar things aren’t where we should look to find our bearings. 

“Let me just get my bearings, here.”  It’s an unusual phrase.  It comes from navigation, especially from navigating at sea when there were no landmarks in view and before there was GPS or anything like it.  It comes from using the stars or a compass to find your way.  Hopefully you have a map (or something like a map) that shows where you’re going, and the map shows which way is north.  You use a compass to help you know which compass direction to steer to take you where you want to go.  That direction is your bearing.  It’s the number of degrees away from due north you want to head.  If a wave (or something) knocks you off course, you use the compass to get back on your bearings. 

This phrase, this idea, is on my mind because we’re living in crazy-making times.  Every morning there is a fresh load of things on the news that sound crazy to me.  They sound like people have lost their way. 

Most obviously, there’s a pandemic that’s killing millions.  We have a vaccine that protects against it and is almost sure to prevent serious illness.  But some people won’t take it.  That seems crazy to me.  I can only imagine those people have lost their bearings. 

Talk of conspiracies abound.  I’m not eager to wander into politics here today, but if you read the news at all, I think you know what I mean. 

It feels like a lot of people have lost their bearings.  They’re confused, or muddled – or afraid, and they’re looking for something that helps them get their bearings back.  They’re looking for something to grab hold of, something sturdy and solid, that helps them get their bearings. 

Where do they look for something to get their bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Some people try to find their bearings at work.  Their work has meaning for them and they try to do it well.  When they can’t find work, or when their work seems pointless or degrading, it can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.  Other people try to find their bearings in their family – in the relationships that connect people to one another.  When those relationships don’t work or break down, or when they take a shape they hadn’t expected – had never imagined – that, too can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.

And some people try to find their bearings in traditions.  They want things to be just like they were when they were growing up, or the way they were for their parents or their grandparents.  Change is hard.  And when comes, as it always does, people feel like they’ve lost their bearings. Maybe they are looking for their bearings in the wrong place. 

Jesus’s parents lived in crazy-making times.  The Romans had conquered Judea in 63 BC, not long before they were born.  Suddenly the Jews were no longer an independent people.  Their king was not really their king.  Jesus was born into a world at a time and in a place where many people had lost their bearings. 

Where should we look for our bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Think about the “three wise men” who have a starring role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.  Who were these “wise men?” Who were these men who felt compelled to follow a star – something that itself seems a little crazy.  But it felt right to them – and it was right.  Who were these guys?

We generally call them Kings, or the Magi. (“Magi” is from the same root as the word “magic.”)  It’s a word from the Persian language and that’s where we think these Magi came from. I’ve been reading a new translation of the Gospels, this one by Sarah Ruden, a Classics scholar who has been drawn to worship among Friends.  Here’s how she translates the verses in Matthew 2:

When Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, diviners from where the sun rises appeared at Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born? We did see his star at its rising and have come to prostrate ourselves before him.”

“Diviners” is how she translates the word.  What makes these men “wise” is that they took their bearings from the stars.  They took them from something much more fixed and solid than work or family or tradition.  These three were skilled at reading the stars, and they saw in the stars the signs of divine things. 

“Diviners.”  They were not Jews and of course they were not Christians (Jesus was just about to be born).  They were probably Zoroastrian priests, but they took their bearings from the stars and that led them – compelled them – to come a long distance to worship a baby they’d never me – whose parents they’d never met.  They took their bearings from the stars – from divine things.  And the Ruden translation says:

 “When they saw the star there, their joy was heaped on joy, in great abundance.”

It wasn’t dizziness they felt.  It wasn’t confusion.   It’s because they took their bearings from divine things, not from earthly things, that this strange long journey they took filled them with joy. 

It’s easy to get caught up in earthly things.  It’s easy to try to find our bearings in those earthly things.  But those earthly things – work and family and tradition – are unlikely to give us a long-lasting and joy-filling sense of who we are and what’s right to do.

Those Diviners followed a star.  They followed it to Jesus at the point of his birth.  And his birth can point us towards a way of finding our bearings. 

That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  That’s why we find an abundance of joy in Christmas. 

How do we find our bearings in divine things?  That’s why Christmas is only the beginning of the story.   There’s a long road to travel to find our bearings, but we have to look to divine things to travel that road. 

Also posted on River View Friend