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?
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