take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not. – Haggai 2:4-5 (RSV)
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Consider labor: How do we make a living without seriously compromising our beliefs? The military-industrial complex has extensively penetrated nearly all facets of American society. Not even the universities are immune. And global corporations, in their quest for ever higher short-term profits, incur other moral difficulties. Law? Medicine? And so on. Until we resolve this, we are likely to face either accelerated decline in our faith communities or be unable to maintain our testimonies, which are eroding too rapidly as it is. I’m not just speaking of the Society of Friends, either.
Where do we turn? Retreat into farming? Farmers aren’t surviving. As the French novelist inquired nearly a century ago: Where are the shoemakers in the Society of Friends nowadays?
On top of it all, professionals, as hired guns, are becoming rootless. Living by our wits: how fast can you dance, pardner?
Are we, too, entering a kind of exile?
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Though ’tis possible for Men to sin themselves into such a State, by drinking in Iniquity, as the Ox drinketh Water, when through Custom in Sinning, their Consciences become seared as with an hot Iron, that this Principle of God may cease striving with them, and so these may not know when they do Evil. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)
This is how we kept warm on icy mornings, back in the day before the meetinghouse had a wood stove. Friends would heat the stones in their own hearths, place them in metal carriers, and huddle over them in the hour of worship. The stones would also keep the carriage warm on their journey.
We call them “benches,” not “pews.” And they’re movable, not fixed to the floor. But as we’ve adapted more of the meetinghouse to other functions, chairs have replaced benches in some rooms. So what do you do with the old ones?
Above the coffee pots in our meetinghouse sits this painting, originally used as an illustration in an edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s collected poems.
The particular poem is “How the Women Went from Dover,” telling how three Quaker women came to town in 1662, preaching and teaching until they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to cruel punishment. It was the start of our Friends Meeting, the fifth oldest congregation in the state. Despite continuing persecution, nearly a third of the population became Quaker.
Nowadays, the general public knows little or nothing about Quakers. So some of us are trying to be a bit more visible.
For the past several years we’ve been participating in the annual Apple Harvest Day street fair the chamber of commerce hosts the first Saturday in October. It’s grown into a beehive that sprawls over the entire downtown and down along a riverside park, attracting tens of thousands to town. While many of the tents are for arts and crafts vendors or local eateries, nonprofits are also a major presence.
Each year, we’re learning a little more. Remember, too, that it’s repeated positive impressions that eventually lead individuals to try what you’re offering.
We’re just getting our message out. We’ve developed from these humble first appearances to a more focused Meet a Quaker theme. Unlike many of the other tents, we’re not selling anything – we’re just trying to raise the visibility of the state’s fifth oldest congregation.
Peterson Toscano is a remarkable Bible scholar, one who frequently opens a passage in a new way to me. Let’s say I quote him a lot. But he’s also, well, as he’s described it, a “quirky, queer, Quaker performing artist and comic” and environmental and social justice activist and a lot more. He adapts readily to any audience, large or small, young or old, indoors or out. Oh, and he is incredibly funny, even when dissecting a Biblical passage. I always find him quite refreshing.
Here he is in the Gonic meetinghouse in Rochester, New Hampshire.