At Durham Friends Meeting on November 19, 2023, Leslie Manning read this poem, “Taking Sides,” by Rabbi Irwin Keller, to open worship:
message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 5, 2023
Dear Friends, It is my privilege to bring the message this morning and my hopes are that it will bring blessing and closure in some manner to us this day, in this season of the drawing back of nature’s life force to be contained and conserved in the darkness, preparing for another season of growth in yet another time. I asked to bring the message today for two reasons. One, because there was an empty line on our calendar for message bringers, but more importantly because this message has been growing inside of me for at least two years, perhaps even more.
I have captured little thoughts and inspirations from the life and lives we share as a corporate body and of course from my personal prayers, meditations and conversations with the invisible realms, with the angels and spiritual guides, with my relationship with God.
This message comes out now following our last Sunday’s Meeting for Grieving as a continuation of the deep need to honor and grieve all those we have said goodbye to over the last three years and also all that has been lost within our community as a result of the Corona virus pandemic. I want to speak to all of this because our wounding from it is deep, and because it continues to reverberate throughout the present experience we share. I am mindful that not all has been lost, and there have been gains of new growth and adaptation throughout this period as well. BUT, I want in this moment in time to give attention and voice, here and now, to what we have lost. To give voice to that which causes us to sorrow, here, in our small beloved community and beyond! Because our small, beloved community exists in the larger world and we recognize how our lives are affected by tragedies around us. That which we sorrow after is the physical, warm, flesh and blood and bone presence of our friends. Those who we sorrow over have vanished from our sight and we are filled with sadness while we continue to yearn for the, while we long for their presence among us. The spaces that they inhabited are now hollow……….. We no longer feel the comfort of their tenderness, or the joy of their laughter. We no longer bask in the light of their eyes and the music of their voices, each one’s unique and distinct personality and the vibrance of their spirits. What makes these losses even more poignant is that they are not flesh and blood family members. They and we are a body of like- minded spirits who come together in relationship because we share in the common desire to seek after God, we come together to worship the Divine in all life and in each other , to lift one another into that light and to be led by that life and fullness. So, it is right and good that we suffer the absence of their warmth and companionship and shed our tears and feel the gnawing in our throats when their memories rise within us.
I personally grieve a lot of life that has been missed since we stopped meeting here in this holy space, our Meetinghouse. And I will say it again, how I ache over missing our connectivity by not gathering near to one another for two long years. My soul aches terribly when I think about the slow deaths of aged ones who in their isolation during the lockdown, were buried by the weight of loneliness and lack of human touch. I grieve over the loss of our young families and the precious growing years of our youth, never to be recovered. And I grieve over the misunderstandings and hard and difficult differences among us that were only magnified when we couldn’t sit down with one another in attempts to work things through. I grieve the loss of normalcy and the strange, cold distancing that kept us afraid of one another getting close. I the reality and trauma of mask wearing, robbing us of seeing each other’s facial expressions and smiles, and I grieve that weddings and funerals and birthdays and graduations were not celebrated as is our custom in the life of our Meeting community. I grieve and regret the disruption of our lives together and many who are no longer with us.’ But,’ you might say, we survived and we came through and we and we and we……………………………………………. And that is true, but today’s message is not about survival, is not about adapting, it is not about how we came through. As I said at the beginning, this message is about loss. Let us allow one another to grieve our losses, pay them the attention they deserve, and then and only then, in the space that follows look to and acknowledge all that we have survived and how we have come through.
When my mother died eleven years ago, I remember the sense of losing the biggest part of myself, that beautiful woman who brought me into the world and was my anchor here spiritually and physically. Suddenly, she was gone, no more laughter and shared moments, no more going to the grocery store with her or for her, no more dinners and sleepovers and family gatherings, no more trips to PA, or Vermont or Ohio. She was just gone- and her leave taking ripped away at the very fabric of life and time and purpose. I remember feeling such terrible loneliness and raw sadness going into the grocery store, knowing that I was not shopping for her anymore. It would come over me and permeate my whole self, such that I would feel like a little lost girl and could not wait to get out of there.
And so, it is with each one of us, missing the people who have gone on and are no longer with us. Who have gone with their precious human forms, leaving with a little portion of our souls that go with theirs.
And so, here we are, still here, with each other, figuring out the new dance steps with fewer dancers remaining. Like survivors of a shipwreck holding tight to the flotsam of debris left floating on the sea, holding on for dear life to one another.
It becomes even stronger then, our need for one another. Our need to pray with one another and for each other. To bear up patiently and with deep kindness, the understanding that we are all surviving the pain and the losses, the trauma of our collective suffering on a grand scale. And that we carry the burden of grief and sorrow together.
I want to close now with the words of an amazing soul who was a poet, philosopher and artist. Born in 1883 and who lived till 1931. Kahlil Gibran, who many know, for his seminal work,” The Prophet. “ It is one of my favorite works of spiritual writing which as of this year is 100 years old. It is a collection of poems in which innumerable people have found in them an expression of the deepest impulses of man’s heart and mind.
So I end this message with Gibran’s poem called, “On Joy and Sorrow”
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is you sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, made by the carver’s knife?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you that they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
[Or, We’re Slipping Again into a Time of Religious War]
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 12, 2023
It is tolerance that is on my mind this morning. Tolerance isn’t one of the Testimonies of Friends, and perhaps it should not be so considered, but still it has an importance for Friends.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us agreed about everything? Wouldn’t that be splendid – a harmony. A peace, you might say. I don’t mean we’d all agree about the little things, like which flavor of ice cream is best, or whether the Patriots are our favorite team.
I mean wouldn’t it be great if we all agreed about the big questions like what is the proper name of God, or how should God be worshipped or what is sinful in the eyes of God and what is not. Wouldn’t agreement on those matters be heavenly? Surely in heaven there is nothing but agreement.
Or would it? Maybe you can think of some reasons this might not be so good. Maybe you can think of reasons this would be hard to achieve without conflict or violence. Humans can find it hard to agree with one another; that seems to be just the way we are. Sometimes people try to force others to believe what they believe, to achieve that uniform harmony of belief. And that conflict can be painful. It can become religious war – war to achieve heaven on earth.
Today, I’ve been thinking we are slipping again into a time of religious war – or something very like it. Conflict, yes, but “religious”? Is that the right word? That may strike you as an odd thing to say. In the United States many fewer people consider themselves religious than just a few decades ago. The same is true in Europe and in much of Asia and Latin America.
Nevertheless, around the world we have religious wars between Jews and Muslims. Think about what’s happening in Gaza. And we have religious wars between Shia and Sunni within Islam. Think of the long struggles between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the world of Islam – struggles in which we are constantly being caught up. These conflicts are heartbreaking.
But I’m also finding myself thinking there is a possibility of religious war here in the United States. Some of this mirrors those global conflicts, but more to the point it involves conflicts among Christians, and between some Christians and others who do not consider themselves religious at all.
1648. That’s a date I don’t imagine many of you ever think about. It’s the year the great religious wars in Europe ended. It was the conclusion of what we came to call the Thirty Years War, but it was really a war that lasted longer than that.
The Thirty Years War was a long, extremely bloody struggle to decide what was the one true religion – the one, true religion that everyone should believe and practice – to achieve that universal agreement bon big questions. It was largely between Roman Catholics and Protestants, though sometimes also between different kinds of Protestants. Each side tried to impose its understanding of the one true religion on everyone else. Our understanding of sin. Our understanding of baptism and communion. Our understanding of marriage.
This was an appalling war. The International Red Cross estimates that between 4 and 12 million people lost their lives from combat, or from resulting disease or famine. Perhaps 20% of the population of Europe died.
The Thirty Years War ended in a stalemate, a very bloody stalemate. Exhausted and appalled at the carnage, the various kings and princes and Dukes of Europe agreed that each country would have whatever religion its king or prince or duke decided, and that the various countries would no longer try to impose their religion on others. These wars ended in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.
This wasn’t yet religious liberty as we know it today – the kind of religious liberty that we celebrate in the First Amendment. After 1648 Kings could still impose the one true religion on those in their own country. And they did. But they agreed not to try to impose across national borders.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t many decades before countries began to agree that there wouldn’t be religious war within their own boundaries. They began to agree that each person could worship God as he or she saw fit (or not worship at all). They began to agree that governments wouldn’t say this is the right way, the only way allowed. It wasn’t so far and so long from The Thirty Years War to the First Amendment, from the one true religion to religious liberty.
Aren’t I talking politics here in Meeting? Yes, but I’m also talking religion. The beginnings of Quakerism are deeply connected to this search for religious liberty. Remember we’re the religious group without a creed, without an authoritative statement of belief. We’re a religious group whose beliefs and practices disturbed many people.
Let’s come back to 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia. It was just four years after that date that George Fox climbed Pendle Hill and had his epiphany: Christ would speak to him if he stilled himself to listen. And that very same year Fox preached to over a thousand people at Firbank Fell beginning the movement we call Quakerism.
The beliefs and practices of Quakers were deeply offensive to the leaders of the Church of England. I think we can lose track of that. Fox was imprisoned and more than once. Dozens, hundreds of other Quakers were imprisoned. Some died. Why? Because Quakers wouldn’t go the local Church of England church. They wouldn’t take off their hats to nobility. They used “thee and thou” with everyone. They believed they didn’t need priests. They wouldn’t swear oaths. They wouldn’t recite the creeds of the Church of England. They wouldn’t fight in wars. They allowed women to preach. All these upset people in the established church.
In those first decades of Quakerism, it was perilous to be a Quaker. It took secrecy or courage – or both. Not until the Petition of Right, in 1685, was there even a modest measure of individual religious liberty in Britain.
We all know the stories of people coming to the American colonies for religious liberty. Often, however, they created communities where there was one true religion, their own, and they persecuted others. In 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony.
We might think those days are long in our past. After all I’ve mostly been talking about the 17th century. But here in the 21st century, some of our most difficult conflicts involve abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and attitudes toward those with different religious beliefs, Muslims or Jews or Sikhs. We’ve come to call these “social issues,” but they are very much like religious ones. They involve beliefs about “the right way to live.” These are conflicts fueled by strong beliefs about what is sinful and what is not: like abortion, like sexual identity. I fear we are slipping back into a time of religious war.
We often talk about the religious freedom part of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution as “Separation of church and state.” Those aren’t the words of the Amendment, though. The Amendment really has two parts. It says there shall be “no establishment of religion.” That means no official church. No one is compelled to have any particular beliefs or practices, and no church is given special status.
And the Amendment also says (this is the second part) that there shall be “no prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” That means each person can have whatever beliefs they choose or use whatever worship practices they choose.
“No establishment of religion” and “free exercise”. Those two principals have defined what religious freedom has meant in the United States since our founding. They are bookends. And they are simple, aren’t they? No, not really. Both principles are open to a good deal of interpretation. And we are finding ourselves again in a time when the current interpretations are being challenged.
“Tolerance” is another way to talk about these two principles. ‘You go your way and I’ll go mine.’ ‘You worship as you please and I’ll worship as I please.’ We can try to persuade one another, but we won’t try to coerce others into sharing our beliefs or our practices. It’s a way to avoid conflict over deep beliefs. “Tolerance” is a basis for living together with people with whom we disagree – with whom we disagree about the most important matters.
“Tolerance” is a good thing, or so we’ve long thought. Quakers have valued it because tolerance has allowed us to have our unusual practices without being thrown in jail.
We should recognize, however, that “tolerance” is a second-best solution. Wouldn’t it be better if we all agreed? Wouldn’t it be better if we all shared the same beliefs and practices? Wouldn’t that be best? I think we’d all rather live in harmony with people in a situation where no one did things that horrified or disgusted anyone else. But is we cannot have that, tolerance is second best, and the best humans can achieve.
Such harmony can be hard to achieve. We found that out in the 17th century in a very deadly, bloody war. And it seems like some people are aching again for that first best solution: everyone agrees, and we use the law and coercion to insist that everyone agrees.
Nevertheless, if we want everyone to agree, the only way to achieve that is likely through coercion, conflict and war. Think about that when you hear someone say this or that is the only right way to live, or you hear someone say that this or that practice should be outlawed. Think about that when you hear someone speak of the U.S. as “a Christian nation,” and men by that their own particular brand of Christianity.
If we don’t want that, if we don’t want religious war, tolerance is the way to live together. We’ve been here before. Tolerance doesn’t mean we give up having our beliefs and our practices. It simply means we give up trying to coerce others to follow our beliefs or our practices. We can try to persuade people, but not coerce them.
As William Penn says, ““Let us then try what love can do to mend a broken world.”
At worship on October 29, Tess Hartford read the following, from French priest Teilhard de Chardin:
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind)
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me
off strikes from without
or is born within me:
when the painful moment comes in which I
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;
and above all at the last moment
when I feel that I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive in the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my
and bear me away within yourself.
—Teilhard de Chardin
Brian Drayton is a recorded minister of New England Yearly Meeting through Salem Quarter. Below is his most recent report on his ministry over the past year or two, a remarkable statement of how he views ministry among Friends, or at least his ministry.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, October 15, 2023
Craig Freshley began his message by reading the latest version of a prayer he has been writing and rewriting for several years.
Thank you for making the universe.
Thank you for making me a part of it.
Thank you for providing me with all that I need, and more.
You are the light upon me,
the heat within me,
and the time that carries me along.
I want to see straight and stand true,
notice miracles all around me,
always ready to receive, give, and forgive.
Help me detach from expectations.
Help me like me.
Help me do what’s light.
Here is a recording of the whole message — what he said about this prayer.
At Durham Friends Meeting on October 8, 2023, Ingrid Chalufour read Walking Together, a book the Meeting is distributing to teachers participating in our Social Justice Project. The book tells of the blessings that come from “walking together in a good way.”
ELDER DR. ALBERT D. MARSHALL is from the Moose Clan of the Mi’kmaw Nation, Eskasoni First Nation in Unama’ki-Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A fluent speaker of Mi’kmaw, he has brought forth the concept of Etuaptmumk / Two-Eyed Seeing which honors the strengths of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing for the benefit of all.
LOUISE ZIMANYI, who is of French-Canadian and Hungarian descent, lives as a guest in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 territory. As a professor and researcher, she is co-learning from and with the Land and wise teachers, co-transforming early childhood pedagogy and practice.
EMILY KEWAGESHIG is an Anishnaabe artist and visual storyteller whose work captures the interconnection of life forms using both traditional and contemporary materials and methods. She creates artwork that highlights Indigenous knowledge and culture. Emily is from Saugeen First Nation in Ontario, Canada.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 24, 2023
Psalm 46 verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
This morning, I’d like to spend a little time celebrating PBS – not Public Broadcasting Service but the invitation to Pause and Be Still. Like Public Broadcasting Service, Pause and Be Still (this morning’s PBS) is free and available to all. Tuning into PBS offers access to the most important stories of any day. It is here whether you use it or not. There will never be a pledge drive.
When I truly settle into a moment to pause and be still, the chatter in my mind quiets and the seeking in my heart rests. I sense a clearing opening; I have made myself ready to be more fully present to God in that moment. I have taken a step toward the divine and the divine has sensed my readiness and stepped closer to me. In the stillness, we may dance or cry or laugh or embrace. There is awe. In the stillness, we know each other and are known by each other. And I am reminded that the divine is always here, in me and around me. I just need to pause and be still to remember.
This summer, I began paying close attention to invitations to Pause and Be Still and I have found my connection to the life of Spirit within me deepening and stretching. Granted, my practice of paying attention and embracing invitations to pause was likely supported by the fecundity of the summer season, but even that was a bonus, not the doorway. The doorway is this intention to pay attention to the invitations to PBS.
The doorway has stayed wide open as we enter this season of transition and all the fullness that it holds. The fall equinox invites us to let go of all that summer abundance and to prepare to receive in the fullness of the emptiness of the darker months. Each releasing and receiving is an invitation to pause and be still.
My curiosity about PBS began on the acupuncture table. I have been receiving acupuncture for over a decade and, each time, after I have been poked full of needles, the practitioner asks “music or silence?”. I don’t even have to think about it. Silence is the obvious answer. An hour of silence sounds like heaven ~ but of course it is not silent. As soon as she leaves the room, I hear her receding footsteps, the bird song, the tumble of the dryer downstairs, the neighbor’s car door opening and closing…Laying there immobilized, I tune in to my surroundings. Arriving more fully in the moment, I become aware of the temperature in the room, the heat on my feet, the gentle breeze from the window. The thoughts that have been occupying my mind fall away. A silence of sorts arrives in my being.
Finally after one appointment, I realized that it is not external silence that I am choosing, it is inner silence. Her question “music or silence?” is an invitation that my body has come to recognize as an invitation to pause and be still. PBS.
You may have recognized a similar process of arrival as you settle into Meeting each week.
“Thomas Merton advised, “May we not neglect the silence printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.”
Seeking to tend the silence in the center of my being on a more consistent basis, I have begun to look for and step towards invitations to pause and be still. I don’t need to wait for a weekly gathering at Meeting or a monthly acupuncture appointment, or even a daily meditation practice. Invitations to PBS are happening everywhere all the time! I will share a few of the invitations that I have accepted over the last few months in the hopes that they may help you begin to notice invitations to pause and be still when they arrive in your life:
One morning, I raced out to get a few groceries. Knowing that I had to make two stops before getting back to a work commitment, I raced through the first store only to find myself arriving at the second store 7 minutes before they opened. As I put my timepiece away, I realized I had been granted 7 minutes to pause and be still. PBS! I sat down on the stoop and felt my shoulders relax. Feeling the sun on my face, watching the cars, people and pets pass, and listening to the seagulls overhead, the urgency and self-importance of my task melted away. I was reminded that I am one of many, a single part of the whole in this glorious dance of humanity and divinity. Pause and Be Still.
As I sat, working on this message one evening, I looked up from my computer and was startled to see a young deer standing 15 feet from the house. Calm and unafraid, browsing on the tall grass, I recognized her presence as a gift – an invitation to PBS. I watched her for what felt like a long time, but maybe it was only 3-4 minutes. Over the course of the next hour, we had two more encounters – one outside standing only 10-15 feet from one another. Curiosity, gratitude, wonder, and something that felt like yearning exchanged between us. Pause and Be Still.
The more attention I paid, the more frequently and persistently the invitations arrived. Anything that caught my eye or ear and caused me to do a double take or to catch my breath became an invitation to PBS.
Over the summer, it was:
Microfilaments of spider web suspended from tree to tree
The hummingbird at the feeder, appearing to hover effortlessly while his wings beat rapidly
Strawberry leaves ringed with dew drops
Early morning mists descending on the field
Rain that penetrates every pore
Pause and Be still
The smell of the roses and peonies
The memory of a loved one
The newborn loon baby in the lake
The deer, killed by a passing car
The haunting, far-away look in that gentleman’s eyes
Pause and Be Still
As autumn arrives, I see invitations to PBS in:
The oak leaf falling ever so slowly, held aloft by a breeze so light I can’t feel it
A perfectly whole and beautiful monarch butterfly lying dead among the garden’s tangle
My neighbor singing to herself as she works in the yard
The three-day old chick laying lifeless face-down on the floor of the coop
The little bird’s slow breaths of air and movement of body as I held her in my palm
Pause and Be still.
Accepting these invitations, truly pausing and being still to let wonder and gratitude sink in is a simple and profound way to honor Creation and my place in its web. For me, this is worship in its most humble and profound form.
May you find and accept many invitations to pause and be still this fall season. And, in those PBS moments, may you remember that the divine is always present, always here to be welcomed and known and always waiting to welcome and know you.
Lisa Steele-Maley is the Dean of the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine (ChIME)
Message given @ Durham Friends Meeting, Sept. 17, 2023
“I am a special agent of God.” True statement.
How about you? Would you say, “I am a special agent of God?” True or false?
I have to say True. I am a special agent of God.
September 1964: that’s when I encountered that question. It was an item on a psychological test administered to all the members of my entering class at Haverford College. It had a powerful effect on me: not just in the sense that I still remember it nearly 60 years later, but in the sense that it made me think – and still has that effect.
I am a special agent of God. True or false?
That question came at me when I was in a difficult place in my religious life, as so many young people are when they are just about college age. Did I believe or did I not? If I did believe, what was it I believed? I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I was in a muddle.
But this item came at me from an unusual direction. “I am a special agent of God.” True or false? I was pretty sure as I read it that the answer was “true,” for me. And I was just as sure that answering “true” was the crazy answer on this test. That’s why it has stayed on my mind all these years. True, and crazy.
All of us in that entering class took a bunch of tests that first week. Some of them were placement tests, like the one I took that showed I hadn’t learned enough in high school French to take second year French at this college. But other tests were psychological tests of a sort I’d never taken before.
I learned from the sheet on which I was writing answers, true or false in response to each of dozens and dozens of statements (over 500 actually), that this was called the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Or I know I know it’s also called the ‘Mini Multi.’ It’s still used, still “the most common psychometric test devised to assess personality traits and psychopathology.”
Taking the test that day, I remember there were involuntary giggles around the room as one and another of us came to various statements we should mark true or false. I remember only one other specific statement from that day. “I have black, tarry bowel movements.” True or false? It’s one of the ones that made me laugh involuntarily. Not because there’s anything so shocking about that item; it’s just such a strange thing to be asked. I’d certainly never been asked before, whether “I have black, tarry bowel movements.”
Decades later, when I became more interested in psychological tests, I learned that the MMPI can be helpful in diagnosing such things as depression, hysteria, paranoia, psychopathic deviance and hypochondriasis. (That last one means “excessive concern with bodily functions.” That’s why that item “I have black, tarry bowel movements,” is on the MMPI.) I learned the MMPI was developed by faculty members at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s.
Some other statements I now know are on the MMPI, true or false to each of these:
- I feel uneasy indoors.
- I am sure I get a raw deal from life.
- I believe that I am being followed.
- People say insulting and vulgar things about me.
I’m pretty sure I answered false to each of these.
But I didn’t need to know any of this about the MMPI to realize that that this test was trying to sort us out psychologically – even to find out if any of us were mentally disturbed or “crazy” as we would have put it in 1964. All of us taking the test realized this. That’s probably why all of us laughed at one or another of the items. Could you really imagine anyone answering “true” to this or that statement? But I guess people do.
So there was that item: “I am a special agent of God.” True or false? As I’ve said, I was pretty sure that the answer was “true,” for me. And I was just as sure that answering “true” was the crazy answer on this test.
That day, I thought about it for a bit. Did I really think I was a special agent of God? And if so, did I want to say that on this test? Who knew what would happen next? Would I be carted off in a strait jacket? Ushered off the grounds? Those didn’t seem likely, especially for only one crazy person response, so I marked it true. And it has stayed with me, kind of a marked man.
Am I a special agent of God? What does that even mean? What makes me think so?
I wasn’t a Quaker then. I don’t think I’d yet encountered the idea that God can and will speak to us in the here and now, often in the silence of gathered worship. But it seemed right to me, even then, that in being given the gift of life, I had been given directions of a sort. That there were expectations – sacred ones – about what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. Didn’t those directions or expectations make me an ‘agent’ of God? I wouldn’t have put it that way without the prompt. But when faced with the statement “I am a special agent of God,” wasn’t the best answer – the honest answer – True?
How about the “special” part? Why a special agent? We all don’t seem to be given exactly the same directions or expectations. There seemed to be lots of difference, lots of individuality, among humans. I don’t think I would have picked the word “special.” That sounded then, and now, much too much like I thought I was better than others, and I was pretty sure that wasn’t so. I might have said “particular,” as in “I am a particular agent of God. And perhaps “special” meant something like “beloved” or “loved by.” But who was I to quibble? There was the statement: “I am a special agent of God.” True or false?
True, I think. What do I mean by that?
It means I try to take direction. I have a handler. I try to do what God tells me to do, on those rare occasions when I’m given any guidance at all. (But isn’t that true of other special agents: they don’t hear from their handler for long stretches?)
It means I feel like I’m accountable. Someone’s watching to see whether I do what I’m told. That someone watching me cares for me, but also has pretty high expectations. It means I submit my will to the will of my handler – and my handler is God.
And it means I hear voices. Or at least I try to. That’s the crazy-sounding part. To admit you hear voices.
“I am a special agent of God.” True or false? I still think it’s true. I think each of you are special agents of God, too. It may not be much of a belief to one as muddled as I was then and now. But it’s a beginning.
I am a special agent of God. And you are a special agent of God. Others may think us crazy, but it’s a good kind of crazy.
The message at Durhgam Friends Meeting on August 13, 2023 was given by Martha Hinshaw Sheldon, our member now living in Northern Ireland.
Greetings from Coleraine Friends Meeting. Been in Northern Ireland for two years this summer.
Busy days! Helping my parents move and was the registrar for New England Yearly Meeting. Love the job. Love the people. Love sorting and packing!
This is in contrast to my not so busy retirement days in Northern Ireland where I volunteer with the National Trust, Corrymeela reconciliation center and other odd activities.
Two weeks ago I spoke of being individuals in a community versus being a community of individuals. Where do we focus? On ourselves or on our community?
At Yearly meeting there were 402 individuals. Some more attentive to the Spirit and community than others. In my humble opinion. Some seemed just interested in hearing their own voices. As we do. Who am I? Who are you? Both. Sometimes one? Sometimes the other?
When growing up in Wellesley Friends meeting I learned of the GreenCircle. A way of peace and reconciliation, a way of being in community. In a circle all are equal. No one is at the head of the table. No one is in the front or behind.
Another image. The Third Way. Palestinian lawyer, Jonathan Kuttab wrote of a third way in the conflict in Palestine and Israel where I first heard of this concept. We tend to think of us versus them. Only two ways to solve conflict. In the third way there are more than two ways. Multiple ways. I believe that is what Jesus taught. Alternative ways to see the world. Ways that take into account the whole community rather than the winner and loser.
Joseph and Jesse Bruchac, from the Abenaki nation, shared stories and music as keynote speakers at NEYM. Jesse is an author and native languages speaker, Joseph a storyteller. One story told how animals became smaller when humans were created. Their telling of this story and others is on the NEYM website. My summary version is this. When humans were created the other animals were angry and wanted to be rid of them, these strange creatures. The creator soothed each creature with a touch, a stroke, a word of calm. This decreased their ferocity and size to not harm humans. Except for the mosquito. The vampire spider.
Because the earth is not for the comfort of humans.
Community is not the stage for individuals.
Community is for all to be heard and listened to, for all to be equal, for all to hear of the wisdom of the Spirit, the creator, the Other. Wisdom is not from one voice but from a weaving together of voices. Weaving together of voices that may introduce a third way or more, of leadings based on being open to the wisdom of others, especially those who may be contrary to us. For when we are not willing to listen to others we are not willing to learn of new possibilities, new solutions. In our listening I invite you to ask others why they feel or are led in a certain way. (
I invite you to be willing to be open to a third way, a way led by the Spirit and not our own desires or wants. I do not believe that our wants and desires are bad and the Spirits are good and that they conflict but that sometimes our wants and desires may not be what is best for the community and from Spirit.
This is not always easy but it does lead to a peace of mind and soul. This I know.
At Durham Friends Meeting on August 6, 2023, Renee Cote, co-clerk of Ministry and Counsel, read Isaiah 58:6-12, the theme of this year’s New England Yearly Meeting annual sessions, August 5-9, 2023. “Like a Watered Garden: Open to Grace, Loose the Bonds of Injustice.”
Isaiah 58:6-12 (New International Version)
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Craig Freshley gave the message at Durham Friends Meeting on July 30, 2023, titled “What If God Is the Rest of Your Body?” A recording of the message is available at this link.
Update, August 16, 2023: Craig’s message and associated material is now also available on the Thee Quaker podcast hosted by Jon Watts and Georgia Sparling:
In opening worship on July 30 at Durham Friends Meeting, Wendy Schlotterbeck read this meditation from Richard Rohr, posted on the website of the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Recognizing and Appreciating, by Richard Rohr
Thursday, July 27, 2023
Contemplation is a kind of seeing that is much more than mere looking because it also includes recognizing and thus appreciating. The contemplative mind does not tell us what to see but teaches us how to see what we behold.
But how do we learn this contemplative mind, this deep, mysterious, and life-giving way of seeing and of being with reality? Why does it not come naturally to us? Actually, it does come momentarily in states of great love and great suffering, but such wide-eyed seeing normally does not last. We return quickly to dualistic analysis and use our judgments to retake control. A prayer practice—contemplation—is simply a way of maintaining the fruits of great love and great suffering over the long haul and in different situations. And that takes a lot of practice—in fact, our whole life becomes one continual practice.
To begin to see with new eyes, we must observe, and usually be humiliated by, the habitual way we encounter each and every moment. It is humiliating because we will see that we are well-practiced in just a few predictable responses. Few of our responses are original, fresh, or naturally respectful of what is right in front of us. The most common human responses to a new moment are mistrust, cynicism, fear, knee-jerk reactions, a spirit of dismissal, and overriding judgmentalism. It is so dis-couraging when we have the courage to finally see that these are the common ways the ego tries to be in control of the data—instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us and teach us something new!
To let the moment teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws us inward and upward toward a subtle experience of wonder. We normally need a single moment of gratuitous awe to get us started. 
In her book on spirituality and parenting, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg emphasizes the special awe that arises from paying attention to our ordinary lives:
The twentieth-century rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel [1907–1972] wrote a lot about “radical amazement,”  that sense of “wow” about the world, which he claimed is the root of spirituality. It’s the kind of thing that people often experience in nature—at the proverbial mountaintop, when walking in the woods, seeing a gorgeous view of the ocean. But it’s also, I think, about bringing that sense of awe into the little things we often take for granted, or consider part of the background of our lives. This includes the flowers on the side of the road; the taste of ice cream in our mouths; … or to find a really, really good stick on the ground. And it also includes things we generally don’t even think of as pleasures, like the warm soapy water on our hands as we wash dishes. 
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, Just This (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2017), 7–9.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Macmillan, 1976), chap. 4. Cited by Ruttenberg, Nurture the W0w, 293.
 Danya Ruttenberg, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), 56–57.
The July 23, 2023 worship at Durham Friends Meeting was begun by Richard Brown Lethem reading poems from his recently published chapbook, Roots, Stones and Baggage. It is available from Bamboo Dart Press.
Roots, Stones & Baggage is a collection of paintings and poems that span over seventy years of his life. Both the poems and the paintings take many stylistic turns that mirror those of his life. Works written and painted in Missouri, Paris, Brooklyn, Maine & California reflect those surrounding sometimes taking flight into the ether and at other turns digging into the core of all things.
The worship message at Durham Friends Meeting was given by Emma Condori-Mamani (Friends International Bilingual Center, Bolivia) and centered on Thessalonians 1:
1 Paul, Silas[a] and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith,your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters[b] loved by God,that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power,with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You knowhow we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joygiven by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven,whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
On July 2, Leslie Manning offered a message that included the Merton Prayer
She also quoted from Advice 27 in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice:
When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community?
Let your life speak.
When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?
On Sunday, June 25, 2023, worship at Durham Friends Meeting was unprogrammed, and following our regular worship there was a memorial service for Margret Wentworth. Both featured readings of Psalm 118, one of Margaret’s favorites.
Psalm 118 (KJV)
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
2 Let Israel say:
“His love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say:
“His love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the Lord say:
“His love endures forever.”
5 When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
he brought me into a spacious place.
6 The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
7 The Lord is with me; he is my helper.
I look in triumph on my enemies.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in humans.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
10 All the nations surrounded me,
but in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
11 They surrounded me on every side,
but in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
12 They swarmed around me like bees,
but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
13 I was pushed back and about to fall,
but the Lord helped me.
14 The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
he has become my salvation.
15 Shouts of joy and victory
resound in the tents of the righteous:
“The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!
16 The Lord’s right hand is lifted high;
the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”
17 I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
18 The Lord has chastened me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
25 Lord, save us!
Lord, grant us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.[b]
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up[c] to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 18, 2023
Today is Ellen and my 26th wedding anniversary. It’s a pretty important day in my life. Most of you know Ellen; perhaps you can understand how very fortunate I feel to have her as my life partner. Our very best project together has been being the parents of two wonderful boys – men now – who bring us great pride and joy.
So another thing about today is that it’s Father’s Day. Today I want to say a few things about fatherhood, which is pretty important to me — being a father myself twice over.
The Bible might seem to be a place to start; it’s often a place we start when we think about important things. But the Bible – at least in my reading – turns out to be an odd place to look for understanding fathers. Think about the New Testament. Joseph is a most unusual father because he had to adjust to the fact that his wife-to-be was pregnant even before he married her, and not by his doing. He seems to have been a good father, but he pretty much disappears in the gospels after the nativity story. Jesus isn’t a father in any human sense. Nothing is said about the disciples being fathers. The same with Paul. And so forth: there’s just not much there about fathers.
There are more fathers mentioned in the Hebrew Testament, but not many positive exemplars. Moses had a father named Amram. But his wife, after hiding the baby for a few months, put him in a basket to float him downstream. Amram didn’t play much of a role in Moses’s life growing up. Abraham had a son – Isaac – quite late in life. Then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the boy, and Abraham was ready to do it until God stopped him at the last minute.
Samuel was the son of Elknah, born after Elknah’s wife, Hannah, had prayed for a child. When that prayer was answered, she sent the young boy off to serve the priest at Shiloh. So Elknah didn’t play much of a role as father. David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. He became a shepherd until Samuel came for him and sent him on the road to serving in King Saul’s court. Eventually David became Saul’s successor as king. I guess Jesse was a good father, but we don’t know much about that.
Get the picture? There’s not much about what fathers do in raising their children in the Bible. It isn’t a story about fathers who help mold their children and set them on the right path. I don’t know quite what to make of that. But I will say it’s one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with people saying the Bible has a lot to teach us about marriage or the family. Its focus is elsewhere.
And there’s this: the Bible, or at least most translations, keep referring to God as “our Father,” confusing “fathers” with “God.” The nature of “God” is a beyond-me topic for me, but I’m pretty clear that being a father isn’t being God-like. I don’t think that’s a good way to think about it. There are too many mistakes and too much impatience and worry in being a Dad to have it resemble God.
So let me speak more personally – about my experience. About being a father.
I’m a father of two wonderful sons, Tommy and Robbie. I also had a wonderful father, and he had a father. (The fathers going further back I only know about from family stories and obituaries and census records.)
My father’s name was Frank, and his father’s name was Frank. Frank (Senior) always called my dad, “Son.” Invariably. I don’t think I ever heard him call him anything else. Neither Frank was ever given to expressing much emotion (they were men from New England, after all), so it took some years to realize that part of my grandfather calling my dad “Son” was an expression of how important it was that he had a son. Being a father meant a lot to him, even if he didn’t seem to show that much in an outward way. I now think it may have been the most important thing in his life.
Well, “Son” (Frank Jr.) had a son – that’s me – and now I have two sons. And the older one has two daughters. So it goes on, and on, and on. Today, on Father’s Day, I miss my own Dad more than I could ever tell you, and I miss my grandfather, too. And today, especially, I get why it was a big deal for my grandfather to have a son — two sons, actually — how proud he was, and how many big expectations he had for his sons. (I also miss Ellen’s dad, a very special man, and I know she does, too.)
Big expectations: I’ll come back to those.
Time has passed; I’ve grown up and, well, grown old. I called my mother’s father, at his request, simply Bob or Bobby. That was just who he was. He was delightful. I called my father’s father (Frank, Sr.) “Dad’s Dad.” It seemed perfectly straightforward, until I began to realize that my friends had various other names for their grandfathers, but none of them had a “Dad’s Dad.” When I became a grandfather, my son Tommy asked me what I wanted to be called, and it was immediately clear as day: I wanted to be “Dad’s Dad.” And so I am. Once I had a Dad’s Dad; now I am Dad’s Dad. If my granddaughters were here today, they might tell you I do a lot of “goofin’ around.”
It’s more than just the name or the title. I’ve begun to look like my Dad’s Dad. My walk looks like his, and so on. I’ve stepped into the role, and there’s nothing more important to me than being a Dad and a Dad’s Dad.
So what do Dads do?
I once heard a child psychologist talk about being a father. I love this pithy sentence from him: “My job is to love my children unconditionally and to design consequences.” The loving your children unconditionally is big and mysterious in some ways, but I think you get that part of his instruction. “Designing consequences?” I think he meant children need to learn that what we do has consequences, some good, some terrible, and in growing up we need to be aware of those consequences. We don’t want our children to experience what happens if they get hit by a car so we tell them they shouldn’t play in the street and that there will be a consequence if they disregard that guidance. They might have to go to their room, or sit on the front steps for a while. We design consequences, mild, instructive consequences that show them the way.
Being a father is about providing, about supporting, about teaching. Sometimes it is about comforting your children when they are sick or sad, and sometimes it is about setting limits when you think children may cause harm to themselves or others.
Being a father is also about tickling and about singing silly songs. It’s about “goofin’ around.” It’s about walking your child back to sleep in the middle of the night. It’s about building Lego castles and cars, about special birthdays and birthday cakes, about helping your child ride a tricycle and then a bicycle and then (if you’re lucky) a unicycle and then watching him ride a very tall unicycle (that’s a giraffe) in big parades. Or so it was for me. It’s about helping with math homework and showing how to drive a stick shift car. And then it’s about having him show me things.
A very hard part of being a father is having expectations for your children. Expectations. In a word or two: it’s important to have expectations and it’s just as important to let them go. How do you know when it’s right to do each, having expectations and letting them go? That’s a toughie. I realize how important it was to me that my dad had expectations for me: high expectations. He wanted me to do well in school, and perhaps become a chemist like him. I know that it was hard for my dad when I veered off in directions different from his expectations.
We had some tough conflicts over his expectations and my choices. I’ll spare you the drama; we got through them, eventually. And again, I want to say that I’m glad he had those expectations, and even gladder that he could let them go. He let me make my own choices. I still live within the framework of some of his expectations – those expectations I chose to accept. I try to be someone he’d be proud of.
Fatherhood: having expectations, presenting those expectations day-by-day, and then letting them go, or at least some of them. That’s the deal, along with unconditional love.
Maybe that’s what I find so strange about the dads in the Bible. There’s nothing said about their expectations for their children. Not Joseph for Jesus. Not Amram for Moses. Not Abraham for Isaac. Not Elknah for Samuel. Not Jesse for David. For Jesus, for Moses, for Isaac, for Samuel, for David what’s in the Bible is all about God’s expectations for them, and the importance of embracing those expectations.
I listen for God’s expectations, too. That’s supremely important. Most weeks that’s what we’re here talking about, God’s expectations for each of us and for all of us. Still, I would have wanted Jesus and Moses and Isaac and Samuel and David to have earthly dads, too, who had expectations for their sons, high expectations —and then let them find their own way.
Happy Father’s Day one and all.
The message at Durham Friends Meeting this week was a reading, by Cindy Wood, of A Flag for Juneteenth, by Kim Taylor (Holiday Books, 2023). This message was part of the Social Justice Enrichment Project being carried through by our Peace and Social Concerns Committee.
Expert quilter Kim Taylor shares a unique and powerful story of the celebration of the first Juneteenth, from the perspective of a young girl.
On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, General Gordon Granger of the Union Army delivered the message that African Americans in Texas were free. Since then, Juneteenth, as the day has come to be known, has steadily gained recognition throughout the United States. ln 2020,a powerful wave of protests and demonstrations calling for racial justice and equality brought new awareness to the significance of the holiday.
A Flag for Juneteenth depicts a close-knit community of enslaved African Americans on a plantation in Texas, the day before the announcement is to be made that all enslaved people are free. Young Huldah, who is preparing to celebrate her tenth birthday, can’t possibly anticipate how much her life will change that Juneteenth morning. The story follows Huldah and her community as they process the news of their freedom and celebrate together by creating a community freedom flag.
Debut author and artist Kim Taylor sets this story apart by applying her skills as an expert quilter. Each of the illustrations has been lovingly hand sewn and quilted, giving the book a homespun, tactile quality that is altogether unique.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 21, 2023
I was first introduced to Quakerism as a student at Haverford College. One way I received that first introduction was a quotation in ornate script (unusually ornate for Quakerism) that hung in the Common Room. It was from a Commencement Address in 1883 by Isaac Sharpless, then the college president, in 1883. It reads:
“I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgements. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organizations, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgements.”
I’m not the only Haverfordian who was struck by those words. I know several who carry it around in their wallets, or have copies of that inscription in their homes.
I’m no longer sure that this Isaac Sharpless quotation is a good introduction to Quakerism. For me, it speaks too much of individualism, of conscience and freedom, and not enough of worship or God’s will, or of community for that matter.
Nevertheless, that injunction to “preach truth and do righteousness” laid a heavy stamp on me and it still speaks to me. It’s an active exhortation. These are positive things to do, things to do actively, not things to avoid, not things to stay silent upon. “Preach truth and do righteousness.” It’s an urging to be wholly and fully yourself, to stand for what you believe, and to enact those beliefs in the world in every way that you can. “Preach truth and do righteousness,” or, as another Quaker once put it, “Let your life speak.”
That Sharpless quotation mostly warns against the constraints that others may place on our inclination to say or do the right thing – political parties, say, or religious organizations. But over the years I’ve been more struck by the constraints we place on ourselves. The ways we hold ourselves back – hold ourselves back from doing the right thing. We do nothing. We stay silent and seated rather than “preach truth and do righteousness.” We pay attention to what’s ‘in our interest’ or what’s ‘comfortable’ for us. Mostly what holds us back is loving ourselves more than loving our neighbors.
Today, I see a lot of people standing around doing nothing. Bad things happen, and lots of people step backwards or they sit down. In current parlance, they ‘ghost.’ “It’s not mine to do anything about,” they seem to be saying. “Maybe this will soon blow over.” “I’m not getting involved.” “I don’t think I want to get drawn into this.” Maybe we roll our eyes or look away when lies are told. Down that road, what’s the truth of things becomes murky, and we all grow cynical in the belief that everyone cuts corners, and no one does anything about it.
The currently popular list of Quaker testimonies follows a SPICES mnemonic: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship. It’s “Integrity” I want to lift up today, and there it is in the middle of the SPICES list.
That list makes it one of six, but Wilmer Cooper wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet in which he said “’integrity’ is the essential Quaker testimony and undergirds all other testimonies of Friends.” (PH 296, p 6). (Wilmer was the founding Dean of the Earlham School of Religion and someone who, along with his wife Emily, Ellen and I had the privilege to know.) I think he’s right; integrity is the essential Quaker testimony.
He opens the Pendle Hill pamphlet by telling a story about Elfrida Vipont Foulds, a distinguished British Quaker and historian, going to the village of Fenney Drayton, where George Fox had grown up, to see if she could better understand what shaped him. She sat in the church where he worshipped as a child – an Anglican Church of course. And she forms a picture of men and women coming week after week on Sunday, religiously. And then she says “But the self-same people would go from the church the following week cheating their neighbors, cheating in the marketplace, they would get drunk in the ale houses; husbands would beat their wives and parents would cuff their children. Next Sunday they would go back to the village church….”. (p 4). The taproot for Fox, she concluded, is that “Fox felt the need for integrity in daily life.”
This makes sense. For me, integrity is the essential Quaker testimony.
The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete. The word has come to mean “an undivided or unbroken completeness.” And with regard to our behavior, it has come to mean “soundness of moral principle and character; entire uprightness or fidelity, especially in regard to truth and fair dealing”.
Here are a few things it asks of us.
Integrity means speaking the truth of course. It asks for honesty through and through. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us:
37 But let [a]your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
Early Friends –and Friends today – refuse to swear oaths, because to swear an oath before making a statement implies that this time I’m telling the truth, but at other times, maybe not.
It is not just being truthful in what you do say, but also in having the courage to speak up, and to tell the whole truth that you know, even when that’s painful. Just knowing the truth isn’t good enough; you have to tell others. You have to make that an unwavering practice and habit. Speak the truth at all times, but also: step forward to be of assistance. Don’t ‘leave it to others.’ If you won’t speak up, who will?
Integrity means standing up as well as speaking up – standing up for others. It means being actively engaged when others are wronged. I’m sure you can all think of instances of wrongdoing that we later learn others knew about and yet stayed silent. That’s not integrity. Speaking up about wrongdoing has become rare enough that we’ve coined a word to describe those who do: “whistleblower.” But often we realize many people knew about the wrongdoing, and only one or two spoke up – and maybe not immediately. That’s not integrity. When someone ‘blows the whistle,’ ask yourself who hasn’t said a word. We rarely need whistleblowers if the rest of us will speak up in the first place.
Integrity means treating everyone the same, not treating some more favorably because they have power or can provide benefits to you. Early Friends were known for having just one price for all customers. Integrity today means caring for everyone, not just ourselves or our allies or our friends.
Integrity means caring for others as well as yourself. It means treating others with ‘unreserved respect’ – as if they, too, were hosts for a Divine presence within. It means loving your neighbors as much as yourself. Loving our neighbors means not just comforting them in private but stepping forward in public for them on their behalf. It means standing up for others – all others.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a man who is all about his business – in every way, every hour of every day. He thinks Christmas is a humbug; he thinks charity is absurd. But by the end he is a man transformed. He is a joyful man celebrating Christmas, and also now a man of integrity. Dickens has Scrooge say about “his business” now that he is a reformed man:”
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Scrooge goes from being a man who stays put in his counting house to someone who steps forward to help others.
Integrity asks that we be trustworthy: good to our word, consistent, reliable, always, in private and in public, indoors and out. When I was a Boy Scout, we would regularly recite the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” It’s a list of twelve, but it begins with “trustworthy,” reminding us to live by the other eleven always and consistently. It gives the others strength.
Speaking up, standing up, treating everyone with respect, with fairness, with caring; being trustworthy; that’s what integrity asks of us. It’s a lot. Sometimes, maybe often, it means taking steps away from comfort.
We speak of “faithfulness” as central to our relationship to God. In a parallel way, “integrity” is central in our relationships with other people. Both mean doing what we should be doing, doing it actively, doing it wholeheartedly, with no holding back.
What does integrity ask of us? Everything. To have integrity means ‘being whole,’ and that means embracing the whole of things, not just your corner of things. It means to live a life in which we are fully present – whole, wholly yourself, wholly present. It means living as if you lived in the new kingdom. When Fox says (and this is a cornerstone of the peace testimony) “I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that taketh away the occasion for war,” he means he went the whole way in his obedience to God, not part way. He inhabited the new kingdom with his whole self as if he were a tent pole.
To have integrity means being part of the backbone of how all things should be. Integrity is the essential Quaker testimony because it gives voice and strength to all the others. It means standing up for and supporting the way all things should be. The other testimonies – simplicity, peace, community, equality, stewardship – mean very little without integrity to give them backbone.
Or, as Isaac Sharpless instructed: “preach truth and do righteousness.”
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 14, 2023
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34)
This appears at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and is something I try to remember and practice. What stops me? Often, it is fear.
Be not afraid.
Fear not, for I am always with you. We hear this again and again from G!D and the angels.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
The celebration of Pentecost (50 days after Passover) in the Jewish tradition is the bringing of the first fruits from the winter harvest to G!d in the temple. They are offered in commemoration of the most significant gift G!d made to G!d’s people, the Torah, the laws and commandments that stated how people are to live in relationship with G!d and each other. We know them as the Ten Commandments. Love G!d, love your neighbor, love yourself.
After Jesus’ death and return, he left his followers for the final time promising that he would send the Comforter to them, the Spirit of Truth who comes from the Father. Com meaning with, forte, meaning strength. Consolation, yes, but also strength.
When that Spirit arrived, the followers were filled with power, divine power, and went out into the packed streets of Jerusalem, full of celebrants of the festival, and spoke, preached, prophesied and testified to all they had learned and knew to be true in the tongues of every person present, spoke to each of them in their own language, their mother tongue. And we are told that people were amazed and many believed.
For us as Friends, it could be said that our mother tongue is in our sacred silence, our expectant waiting, our seeking oneness with that same divine power that descended upon the original followers and continues to be available to each one of us, as it was to Fox and Fell, Woolman and Mott, Jones and Kelly, and is available and present whenever we gather, seeking unity with each other and divine will.
The deeper unity we seek and work for is described by Julian of Norwich when she writes, “The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person.”
Or, we believe, from all of Creation. So, let us put aside the fear that separates us from each other and the Creator, and join together in waiting upon that Spirit. Taking each day as it comes as the gift it is meant to be.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 7, 2023
Ingrid Chalufour, clerk of Peace and Social Concerns introduced this morning’s book in this way:
Good Morning Friends!
I will start by asking you to hold the Obadiah Brown Benevolent Fund Committee in the light this week as they review our proposal and decide if we will receive a grant from them. They meet on Friday and we hope to hear next week.
A part of introducing social justice to young children is introducing them to injustice. Whether it impacts their own lives or the lives of others, whether it is a part of history or the present day, injustice is a part of the package. One of the things we will explore and clarify for ourselves next year is what are the injustices to introduce young children to, when, and how.
I happen to believe that injustice should always be introduced to young children in the context of activists who are working to correct the injustice. We have shared quite a few of those books with you and I have another one today.
I share a book by Duncan Tonatiuh, a prolific author and illustrator of social justice books for young children. This book tells the story of the Mendez family in the 1940s in California. It is a true story and the author did a great deal of research, interviewing Sylvia Mendez and using actual text from the court files. The book is called Separate is Never Equal.
.You can hear the book read here, from Reading Is Fundamental.
Notes for the message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 23, 2023
Shifts in our understanding.
Who do you say I am? A question asked to elicit recognition and confirmation of Jesus. A shift in understanding. Who do you say you are? Who do you say we are?
Christ, son of man, son of God, messiah, Adoniah, prince of peace, heretic, abba.
Quakers, seekers, religious society of friends, friends of Christ, seekers of the truth.
Each defines how we respond to life and others, how we behave, how we live out our faith.
Musician Tommy Sands brought a group of kids together with other musicians to sing outside the building where the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was being hammered out the Thursday before the Friday. The children present reminded the politicians and negotiators of that which is important. There was a marked shift in talks after the children sang.
“700 days of failure, one day of success.” George Mitchell.
Who do you say I am?
Commentator on the 25 year Good Friday Agreement anniversary said there was a significant shift in the negotiations when the participants shifted their focus from – What do you kill for? To what do you live for?
I add the following.
What do you hate? What do you love?
What do you criticize? What do you support?
What do you take power from? What do you give power to?
Find your truth, share your truth, live your truth.
— From Humankind, by Rutger Bregman
*She was not alone. Kitty Genoese. 1964. Her neighbor had a friend call the police and then ran to be with her as she died. There were 38 people in the area but only one real witness who saw and heard anything.
The lord of the flies is not necessarily a real outcome. A real 15 month outcast shows different. June 1965. A group of boys washed ashore a deserted island near Tonga. They were out to see the world. They created a working, cooperative system to successfully live on the island for 15 months.
Images that fill our minds. Identities of a nation, of a people.
Elizabeth Schrader. Called to study Mary. To learn who she was. She read original manuscripts. And worked for a PHD in Biblical studies. She found that the village of Magdala does not exist. The one claimed to be the village is speculation. Did not exist back In the time. There were many towns named Magdala, the present day Magdala was not a village but a city as evidenced from digs being done now and was likely called Teracaya. Elizabeth came to the belief that Magdalene was a title. Mandala means tower. like the rock. Truth denied.
Also in the Initial story Martha was not present. It was just Mary. Martha added to dilute the focus on Mary. Elizabeth found early scriptures that did not include both women. And then found later scriptures with evidence of changing the participants of the story. The reason to put Martha in and explain that Mary is from Magdala rather than Magdala being a title is to have power over the truth. Sometimes one needs to come forward with new understandings to shift the truth. To fully know the answer to Who do you say I am? Who do you say we are? Sometimes this shift comes through the voices of the young.
What we focus on we give life to. When willing to grow and learn more about a situation or person, faith expands. To include more, The great I am. The larger picture of those involved.
Shift to embrace more. Shift to possibilities of understanding beyond where we are now.
May we stand on the foundation of the rock and look to the light of the tower.
Today’s worsip at Durham Friends Meeting involved a reading of one of the books from the Social Justice Enrichment Project. The book was A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington, by Carole Boston Weatherford & Rob Sanders
Bayard Rustin was a brilliant strategist, pacifist, and forward-thinking civil rights activist during the middle of the 20th century. In 1947 as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin planned the “Journey of Reconciliation”, which would be used as a model for the Freedom Rides of the 1960’s. He served as a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the practice of nonviolent civil resistance, and was an intellectual and organizational force behind the burgeoning civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. He organized protests in England and studied Ghandian principles in India. His life as an openly gay man, however, put him at odds with the cultural norms of the larger society and left him either working behind the scenes or outside of the movement for stretches of time.
Born 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was raised a Quaker and his family was engaged in civil rights activism. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheney State Teachers College, and City College of New York. A charismatic man, he earned a living as a spiritual singer in nightclubs while living in New York City. He took a brief interest in the Communist movement and was a life-long pacifist, due to his Quaker upbringing. His commitment to civil and human rights came at a personal cost. He was arrested multiple times and twice went to jail.
In the 1940s he met A. Philip Randolph and worked with him on various proposed marches on Washington, D.C. to protest segregation in the armed forces and the defense industry. Because of their experiences together, when Randolph was name to head the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he appointed Rustin as Deputy Director and overall logistical planner. In 1947, Rustin and George Houser, executive secretary of CORE, organized the Journey of Reconciliation which was the first of the Freedom Rides. The Rides were intended to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin was arrested for violating state laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation and served twenty-two days on a chain gang.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his talents and tireless work were transferred to human rights and the gay rights movement. In the 1970s and 1980s he worked as a human rights and election monitor for Freedom House and also testified on behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill. Bayard Rustin died from a ruptured appendix on August 24, 1987 at the age of 75.
Today’s message at Durham Friends Meeting (April 9, 2023) involved readings of the Easter story from the Bible interspersed with Easter hymns. Here is the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, the story of Easter.
John 20 — from the King James Version
20 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.
3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.
4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.
5 And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.
6 Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,
7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.
8 Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.
9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.
10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.
11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,
12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.
19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.
21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.
24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 19, 2023
I’d like to begin with an invitation to open our hearts, to invite in Spirit who is always with us; and The Ancestors: the ancestors who brought us this Quaker Meeting, the ancestors who we carry here through our flesh, and the ancestors we have chosen on our spiritual paths. May they add their Light to our time together.
~ ~ ~
……Friends, I’m excited to share today’s message. My prayer is that we embrace an invitation to listen to Spirit from within, moment-to-moment, so that we may be – that is, embody – Love Incarnate. And by becoming Love Incarnate, that we hear the Waterways sustaining all life in this world, so that we may learn to listen to the Water of our own bodies sustaining us constantly. From a new folk song to be shared later, this message is titled, “Way opens when… we remember we are the water.”
……Preparing today’s message, I held with care the Quaker saying “When Way Opens”. I’ve often heard its use to conjure a thing that happens beyond us, like a divine intervention that parts the Red Sea; or a limiting use to mean an exception, like a once-in-a-generation passing of a comet. Yet Way Opening is not by nature an external nor rare event.
……Way Opening is Love, Love Incarnate – loving as we breathe and have being. Way Opening is the Life-Giving Power of Spirit who lives within us and moves through us, a movement of the Waterways by which Rivers and Oceans continuously join together. The ongoing motion of Love requires open-ended learning rather than a routine or a fixed route. Quakers call this “continuous revelation”, and it looks like this: being curious, asking questions, pausing, and accompanying one another.
……In preparing today’s message, I’ve heard the former “When Way Opens” anew as “Way Opens When . . .”
- Way Opens When… we love God entirely. Early Friend Isaac Pennington calls this “giving over” everything and “giving over” continuously.
- Way Opens When… we love ourselves and, in extension, one another – because to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must first learn to love ourselves.
- Way Opens When … God is Our Vision, as in our opening hymn – God being the Living Path of Love, the Jesus Way. We need to see anew– that is, to learn to think anew – as boundless as oceans and as continuous as the rivers flowing into the oceans.
The Life-Giving Power of Spirit is constricted or expanded by how we think about ourselves, and how we relate to others and our universe. This teaching – or rather Learning – of Way Opening is to honor being and thereby relationships. Because Spirit lives and moves within and between us – breathing beings made of water.
……At the same time, this learning teaches on equal footing how harm is caused when we sacrifice our being and relationships in a trade for “things and thoughts”. Some names for Harm are Power-Over, Empire, and Oppression including Everyday Racism in which we all are immersed. In this learning, “things and thoughts” are the stuff that make up our physical and social structures – venerated institutions, private property, and white privilege. The leading for today’s message is not to define all of these names, but rather to call us back to the Jesus Way: Way Opening as being Love Incarnate.
~ ~ ~
Listening for the movement of Spirit as Living Love and the movement of Water as that of Life – both in continuous flow – let’s wade into this message from the Morecambe Bay, the largest estuary of Northwest England and largest mudflats of the UK. Four rivers flow into the Irish Sea here. The mixing of brackish waters nourishes abundant biodiversity. I first walked the shoreline at low-tide with a few companions. We were taking a workshop at Swarthmoor Hall, a 16th-century building famed for use by Early Quakers especially Margaret Fell and George Fox.
……The program was called Experiment with the Light, a Quaker spiritual practice. The practice unfolds over a series of prompts to encourage sensory impressions especially visualization. Our leaders clearly explained the process, framing our gathering within the setting of First Friends due to location. The leaders’ plan was for the group to practice in the Great Hall, and then for us to create individual block prints in the modern building inspired by our experiences.
……The first night that we gathered in the Great Hall, I had a strong allergic reaction to the space. The idea to open windows did not remedy my condition, which is no surprise; centuries of allergens in ancient walls are not easily “aired out”. So, best-laid plans required re-vision. The new plan brought practice sessions in the open outdoors, weather permitting; and, otherwise, encircling within the modern building including early evening. Yet the later night worship sharing would still be held in the Great Hall.
……In this “story-ing” of what unfolded – this version of the story – the leaders’ shift of plan sounds reasonable, a “rational compromise”. What’s missing in this story about “outcome” is how its shape came into being. Late the first night after my allergic reaction, the leaders spoke with workshop participants in the Great Hall without me taking part. I sat in an adjacent room hearing muffled voices through very thick doors. The morning after, one of the leaders spoke with me for us to finalize a new plan. Our gathering as a whole never discussed together what was unfolding. Does that sound familiar, Friends?
……Gratefully, a few participants took interest in me beyond our formal program. I learned from one person how she and a few others said aloud during that decisive talk with leaders how I ought to be included in the process. A few felt that nothing of the program ought to held in the Great Hall if I would be excluded. My low-tide walk along near the grassy side of the Bay’s mudflats was with these few companions. What a difference a few companions make!
~ ~ ~
Friends, my leading to give today’s message arose months ago, originally to honor the Water on World Water Day, which is March 22nd. The United Nations focus for 2023 is “about accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis,” continuing, “And because water affects us all, we need everyone to take action.” This theme resonates my experiences in recent months, listening to the Waterways within this body right here. Because there is a need for clean-up and urgent care throughout our wider world and right here with one another.
……In my journey to become Love Incarnate and to focus on loving neighbors, I’ve bumped into a lot of “things and thoughts” including our Beloved Community – right here and regionally. I’ve witnessed harm done to others and experienced it done to myself: harm as Power-Over, Empire, and Oppression of Everyday Racism – which for some is beyond recognition like swimming in a fishbowl, and which for me as a mixed-race person is daily painful in this wider world and hurts even more in Beloved Community.
……What God calls me to now is to love myself as I would love my neighbor, and to remind us that we should not confuse Love Incarnate with methods or monuments. Friends, the Jesus Way is not our Meeting Houses, Handbooks, business agendas, nor current practices of Gospel Order. The Life-Giving Power of Spirit arrives through our bodies and through our relationships, not our “thoughts and things.” Power-Over is never a reasonable option, and Everyday Racism is never not a part of what we are dealing with in our relationships.
~ ~ ~
As we ready for expectant waiting worship, Friends, I invite us to flow with the Waterways within us and across this Blue Ball – our Earth and only home. Let us hear what God asks of us, moment to moment. We will hear a folk song titled “Strangers” by Nickel Creek; that’s what’s inspired today’s title. I invite a full-bodied listening that opens us up to the Life-Giving Power of Spirit through the music, through the instruments and voices. What do you hear arise? How do you and we become Love Incarnate? How do we all come together to become Love Incarnate? And in this Loving, how do we name harm and repair our relationships?
……Don’t worry about following all of the lyrics. The invitations is to enter in and hold the query, listening to our bodies. If you need to get up and sway, go for it! The lyrics I’m reading out are from the outro, which again has inspired today’s message title:
As we drone on
(As we drone on
Past the break of dawn)
Hit rock bottom
(Of that dry well)
And get to shoveling
We’re our own water
(And we’ve been too long)
Too long coming
To be gone
~ ~ ~ …… ~ ~
Afterword for publication.
Gratitude to Friends who accompanied me in preparing and giving this message, Andrew Grant (Mt. Toby MM) and Melissa Foster (Framingham MM); as well as “steadying” Friends from Three Rivers Worship Group. Deep listening to three “wells” abundantly watered this message:
Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 12, 2023
Why are we here at Meeting? I’ve found myself wondering. And if it seems so important that we’re here, why are there so few of us? Even more I’ve been wondering that too. Are we special? What do others know that lead them to make other choices on Sunday mornings? What are we missing that those others get? Or what are they missing?
When I was in graduate school – yes, a long while ago – I was part of a circle of friends, good friends, that numbered about a dozen people. They were all smart and curious, and came from all over. Women and men, people from both coasts and from the middle, some from the south, some from other countries – quite a variety. None of these people, then or now, are religiously inclined. They didn’t, and they don’t go to church. I’m the odd one in that bunch.
After graduate school I became a faculty member in the department of political science at Temple University. I was one of about 25 faculty members. It was during that time that I became a Quaker and started going regularly to Quaker Meeting. But I don’t remember any of these other faculty members being at all religiously inclined. Perhaps one or two were, but it couldn’t have been more than that.
From Temple I went to Reed College as Provost – chief academic officer. I looked after a faculty of about 100 men and women. Two of them were serious Roman Catholics, and two were observant Jews, though I think more culturally than religiously. Most of my professional life I’ve been surrounded by people who weren’t religious.
I’m saying all this simply to observe that today, in the United States, a lot of highly educated, so-called smart people are not religiously inclined. They don’t see themselves as having a spiritual life and they don’t go to church or meeting or synagogue or mosque for the most part. Smart people aren’t buying it, the life religious. They don’t see any point to it. They think there are better things to do on a Sunday morning.
But it’s not just smart people. Quite a number of surveys have shown that the percentage of people who attend church regularly has gone down considerably in recent decades, and a much larger share of the American population are ‘Nones’ who have no religious affiliation at all.
So why are we here – here at Meeting for Worship? What are we seeing that others don’t? Or, I suppose, what are they seeing that we do not? What makes us special?
I can’t speak for you, but I want to try to say why I’m here today and why I’m here most Sundays. Let me mention a couple of reasons. They sound different one from another, but they link together in my mind.
I come to Meeting because I need to work on myself. I have to figure out how to deal with all the many ways I’m not as good a person as I’d like to be. I need some place to work on my failings. I want to seek more clarity. But I also want to seek more forgiveness, because when I see my failings more clearly, I don’t feel great, and I need to find a way to make a fresh start. That’s a big reason.
Here’s a second: I have a sense that there is more to this life than meets the eye – and more than meets any of our regular senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching). What that more is I have a hard time saying. That ‘more’ is elusive. But it also feels important. Rufus Jones, the great Quaker scholar and mystic, wrote a book titled New Eyes for Invisibles. I come to Meeting because I’m trying to develop — together with others — those new eyes for invisibles. He quotes 2 Corinthians 4:18:
… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
“We must somehow recover our power to see essential realities vividly.” That’s the first sentence of the Rufus Jones book.
This second reason is connected to the first. The more I develop new eyes for invisibles, the more clearly I see my sinful nature. The more I develop ‘new eyes for invisibles’ the more my excuses and delusions fall away, and the better I see new possibilities. Those two go hand in hand. Those first two, you might say, are personal reasons. But there’s more.
In coming to Meeting I join with others in building a community of people that share the same wantings – to see more and more clearly, and to deal with the ways we each fall short. We’re seeking, aren’t we, to build a better community together. Sometimes we call what we’re trying to build ‘the beloved community.’ We might think of it as kind of a pilot project for the human race. If we can build a beloved community here among a few dozen of us, maybe we’ll be taking a step to building a beloved community for the whole of humanity. Here’s Matthew 5:14-16:
“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
This third reason is clearly related to a fourth reason I’m here. If we do build beloved community here in a little brick Meetinghouse in Durham, Maine, surely it will show itself to others. Our light will shine for others to see.
That’s a grand thought, isn’t it. Carved over a fireplace mantle at Earlham College are these words (and some of you know them): “They gathered sticks and kindled a fire and left it burning.” That’s what we’re trying to do by coming here. We’re gathering sticks and kindling a fire and we hope to keep it burning not just for ourselves but for others.
All this has been on my mind recently because there are not as many of us as there were just a few years ago. Why is that?
We all know we have suffered some very sad loses. Margaret Wentworth has gone to her reward. And Charlotte Anne Curtis, too. Sue Wood and Helen Clarkson. And not so long ago Tommy Frye, Sukie Rice and Clarabel Marstaller. We have reasons to be a sad meeting.
But it isn’t just those passings. I imagine we can all think of people who once attended worship regularly who do not come any more – or come very rarely. Some people are drifting away. Perhaps it has something to do with COVID, or perhaps with our moving away from a pastor. I don’t know. It sure doesn’t feel like there’s less need now to find our spiritual bearings in this troubled world. And yet there are fewer of us. That can’t be a good thing.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, there’s a famous scene when Henry’s soldiers are around their campfires the night before the Battle of Agincourt. The English soldiers are tired and bruised from days of travel and fighting. Worse, they know they are seriously outnumbered by the French soldiers they will face the next day. Henry gives them a speech to lift their spirits. He tries to make them feel good about being fewer.
Essentially, Henry’s message is this: Because there will be fewer of us, there will be all the more glory for each of us, individually, when we win tomorrow.
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
And Henry continues:
From this day to the ending of the world,
we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
[From Henry V, Act IV, Scene III]
We should see it as a privilege to be so few Henry is saying. More glory for each of us because we are so few. We few are special, and that’s all to the good.
We should note his soldiers did win the battle. But it’s Henry’s message, not ours. Ours is exactly the reverse. We’re hoping for more, not fewer. We’re caring for ourselves, we’re caring for one another, and we’re preparing a place for yet more to join with us.
In gathering here to worship together, we are always hoping others will join with us. Each Sunday we know – we hope – we may be surprised by newcomers.
So that’s a fifth reason I come to Meeting: to keep hope alive. To make it possible for others to experience what I hope to experience in coming to Meeting. We seek seeing more clearly; we seek the promise of forgiveness; we seek the beloved community. In seeking all these we are kindling the fire. We are nurturing hope. We are holding the door open for all those others.
Or that’s why I’m here. Why are you here even if others aren’t? What’s your answer?
The March 5, 2023 message at Durham Friends Meeting was “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” a children’s book by William Miller and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
Jeanne Baker Stinson read the book this morning. It is one of the books being distributed to school teachers in this area through our Social Justice Enrichment Project. She began with this message:
This morning I’m here to share with you one in a series of books from the Durham Meeting Social Justice Books Project. I’m honored to be a member of this committee, to be a part of this important work, and I thank Margaret Leitch Copland for finding this book.
Richard Wright and the Library Card is a fictionalized version of an incident in Richard Wright’s life that he later wrote about in his autobiography, Black Boy. As you all know, Richard Wright went on to be a best-selling author – writing about the often brutal and dehumanizing experience of being a Black boy, and then man, in America. In this book he pursues his dream of gaining access to books and stories with persistence and agency and is transformed by this experience.
In my everyday life I teach first/second grade – so I read a lot of picture books. Picture Books are a powerful art form – the combination of visual art with a relatively small number of very carefully chosen words often results in a work that is more than the sum of its parts and worthy of rereading, discussion, and contemplation.
Since we don’t have time for repeated readings here, I’m going to direct your attention to a couple of things that you might not notice the first time through.
- Notice how Richard already believed in the power of story – thus his pursuit – but is transformed in ways even he didn’t expect.
- In addition – keep your eyes on Jim. Jim plays a very minor and even reluctant role in Richard’s quest and yet he is changed as well.
I’m sure there’s a message here for us.
In opening worship before the reading, Renee Cote read a Maya Angelou poem.
Still I Rise
BY MAYA ANGELOU
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Drawn from the Poetry Foundation website.
At the beginning of unprogrammed worship on February 26, 2023 at Durham Friends Meeting, Joyce Gibson (providing Care of Worship) read this selection from NEYM’s 1985 Faith and Practice on “The Basis of Holy Obedience” (p. 102):
The Basis of Holy Obedience
Worship, according to the ancient practice of the Religious Society of Friends, is entirely without any human direction or supervision. A group of devout persons come together and sit down quietly with no prearrangement, each seeking to have an immediate sense of divine leading and to know at first hand the presence of the Living Christ. It is not wholly accurate to say that such a Meeting is held on the basis of Silence; it is more accurate to say that it is held on the basis of “Holy Obedience.” Those who enter such a Meeting can harm it in two specific ways: first, by an advanced determination to speak; and second by an advanced determination to keep silent. The only way in which a worshipper can help such a Meeting is by an advanced determination to try to be responsive in listening to the still small voice and doing whatever may be commanded. — Statement prepared for a Friends’ meeting attended by delegates to the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1948.