When I was editing newspaper obituaries, I found myself shaking my head at the ones which included a line that the deceased was “a lifelong member of the NRA.” First, I doubted that they had been paying dues since their birth, but more to the point was my Quaker perspective that their membership consisted of nothing more than sending an annual check and then sitting back while others put in full-time effort – and to me, that’s a matter of subscribing instead. Real membership means putting in the work.
Maybe that points to the other phrase that would catch my attention, “an active member” of such and so. As a Quaker, the idea of passive membership is troubling. (I’ll admit my own tinge of guilt regarding a few important, local organizations where I rather fell into that category.) After all, I carry an expectation that members will do vital things that serve the entire group. We are, for the most part, a bottom-up organization.
We Friends may draw a distinction between formal members and regular attenders, but that line vanishes when we work together. In fact, some attenders are more central to the life of the meeting than are some members.
This leads me to the troubling question of what priority we each give to our spiritual practice and our faith community. Yes, God ought to be No. 1 in our lives. But in the daily routine the test often proves otherwise. That’s when I begin to wish it were all as simple as sending in that annual check and getting a membership card. Alas.
This originally appeared in Dover Friends Meeting’s newsletter as we consider new ways of addressing the needs of our faith community. Unlike many denominations, we Quakers are closely involved in the business of our congregations, or “meetings,” given that name by our recognition of church as the believers or people rather than any organization or building. (And so, the church meets.) The “monthly meeting,” or local congregation, is so named because we gather together to review our common business once a month even though we worship together at least once a week.
In sharing this dialogue, I’m hoping Friends and non-Quakers will perceive ways the discussion might benefit their own circles, religious or otherwise. I certainly welcome insights and suggestions. After all, we’re all in a time of upheaval and the challenges are many. Once again, the world’s being turned upside down.
The Daybook has been a good labor for me, revisiting these texts and some of the commentaries I drafted way back when I first compiled the selection. Yet even in a one-year sweep, there’s much we missed. The Ten Commandments, for starters.
Anyone who wishes to continue can choose among several directions from here. At some point, the Psalms are inescapable; a cassette tape of Jan Hoffman’s Bible Half-Hour talks at the 1993 New England Yearly Meeting provide an intimate and emotionally moving companion in this journey. Or working through Isaiah or the Sermon on the Mount could be fine pursuits.
As an accompanying text, selections from Howard Thurman would be refreshing and stimulating.
I must, however, also admit a feeling of “what was I thinking?” after undertaking this project. The work became far more time-consuming than I’d anticipated, what, with 730 postings in all when you include the photo series. So now it’s in your hands.
In the Second Month 1994 Concord Friends Meeting Newsletter, Betsey Cazden related some of her experiences in “How To Read the Bible.” I’ll let her reflections speak once more. Here they are:
Many Friends do not read the Bible regularly because they have found it either difficult or largely irrelevant to their seeking for God/Truth. It remains, however, the common base for the Judeo-Christian community’s relationship with God over four millennia. In order to understand George Fox and other early Quakers, or any other religious literature, one must be familiar with Biblical language and images. Beyond that, it can lead us into a deeper relationship with God.
I have found several helps to daily Bible reading. First, get a readable translation, of which there are now many. For my regular reading I like the New Revised Standard Version (NRVS), which retains much of the King James but is more accurate and readable. I use the New Oxford Annotated Edition, which contains helpful historical and textual notes.
Second, consider one of the programs that leads you through the entire Bible in a year. I don’t do this every year; I have done it twice in the past twenty years and always find it helpful. There are valuable parts of the Bible that don’t show up in selective reading, and one gets a better sense of the whole span of faith history and how the individual books are linked to the whole. Don’t just start at Genesis 1:1; you’re likely to get bogged down in Leviticus or turned off by the Philistine wars. … Look for the paperback “One Year Bible,” which gives you 365 chunks containing some Old Testament, a Psalm, a bit of proverbs, and some New Testament. Alternately, some denominations have a Common Lectionary that I believe takes you through the entire Bible in a three-year cycle. …
Third, as you read, especially the passages that initially strike you as jarring or violent, think about why they’re there. (Fox urged us to read in the same Spirit which gave them forth.) Why did the author want to tell this story, and tell it this way? What is he (or she, but probably he) trying to say about God, about people’s relationship with God, about how the religious community should live? And why did the people who compiled the Bible, and determined what was “canon” and what wasn’t, feel this section should be included? What is there that resonates in our own experience?
The Daybook project now officially comes to a close. It’s been an intense and enlightening enterprise, but for me now comes a time of moving onward on other fronts. Since the entries remain posted in the archive, you are certainly invited to call them up through the year – especially if you came aboard once we were well in progress.
One of the biggest surprises for me has come in the participation, as it were, by Elizabeth Bathurst, a brilliant though little known Quaker from the early days of the movement. Setting up the daily presentations in their three-part format and leaving the third one to her, they often seemed to pop up as a mini-Quaker Meeting for worship, with messages that were not intended to flow neatly one into the next but rather bounce off each other, the way the Spirit often moves in our gathered silence. I hope Elizabeth has found an appreciation and welcome in a new circle of Friends today.
The next question is just where this blog is headed in the coming year. The pace of postings will slow down, for certain. For the first half of the year, at least, these will present a monthly consideration of new ways Friends might go about doing the things that keep us together as a community of faith. There will also be photos of Quaker meetinghouses and related scenes.
And I imagine there will be some wild-card kinds of entries.
Thank you for sitting with me through the past year. Let’s see what else develops.
on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. – Revelation 22:2
Here, in the closing chapter of the large book we know as the Bible, we return to the Tree of Life from Genesis 2 at the very beginning of the story. This tree, which grew near the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, now appears as the long-sought healing in the human sojourn.
Hearing the passage, I am reminded of one mother’s message on Sunday morning as she told of a time her daughter ran afoul of a stinging nettle plant. Desperate, the mother called another Friend, one wise in the ways of the woods. “Find the nettle plant,” came the advice, “and near it will be another plant. Collect its leaves and make a poultice to apply to the itching skin.”
And it worked. There was healing in its leaves.
Note, too, the related message: Often in life we need to return to the scene of a conflict, rather than flee from it. The resolution will be found there.
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The Apostle wishes their Perfection; and thus he concludes his Epistle to them … Finally Brethren, farewel, be perfect, &c. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)