In this together

I’m always startled to hear people say they can pursue spirituality without any teacher or community. Nothing in my experience, as a yogi or a Christian, supports that.

One reason we need community to accompany our spiritual deepening and expansion comes in the ways it can counter tendencies toward self-deception, human weakness, laziness, or distraction. In the practice of our faith, we instruct, encourage, acknowledge, embrace, correct, inspire, comfort, guide – even rebuke – one another. These are matters the New Testament points tp as discipleship.

Lloyd Lee Wilson has reminded us there are no Quakers apart from the meeting, which is another way of saying each Friend needs to be part of this interactive dynamic.



On the 250th anniversary of the erection of this meetinghouse

Yes, it’s this week. And to think, this was Dover Friends’ third house of worship, coming a little more than a century after the first Quaker convincements along the Piscataqua and Cocheco waterways. The structure covers a lot of history, as we would see if we created timelines of those years – the entire life of our nation, for starters.

It’s hard for us to envision the activity of that day, with its swarm of activity, everyone seemingly knowing the tasks to be done. Cookbook writer Marcia Adams says it takes at least 100 to 150 men to raise an Amish barn, and then recites a menu that fed 175 men in the 1800s. Oxen and strong horses or mules would have been part of the scene, with pulleys and poles lifting the posts and beams into place. Many of the skills used that day have likely been lost to antiquity. A similar number of women would have been arranging the accompanying feast, and children would have been assisting everywhere.

In the background, I hear an echo of an old Friend in Iowa, viewing the beautiful curly maple shutters in a meetinghouse about to be shipped by rail car to another part of the state. “It will be a good thing if they be not too proud of it,” she said, with a curious balance of humility and admiration. The advice, of course, extends to us, as well. The fact remains that Friends do not worship in a temple but a house, with all of its Biblical sense of extended family and even their domestic animals. Welcome to our house.


The early Quaker exposition of the Truth remains unfinished and open for expansion in the context of contemporary fields of intellectual inquiry

We are left with an invitation to investigate ways their thinking fits into our own cognition and measures of authenticity. I am interested, especially, in insights that advance an understanding of the Truth as a metaphor, with overlapping layers of experience and vision.

While Pilate raises the question, “What is truth,” he makes little effort to look beyond the immediate issues of maintaining public order – and his position as imperial governor. In the Matthew 27:24 telling of the story, in fact, he washes his hands in public – absolving himself, he supposes, of any moral consequences of his ruling. The events that follow, of course, prove otherwise.

And as we see with that which is eternal, so we judge … only those who mind the light of the spirit, discern and own our testimony, and receive our witness and his power who is true, and so become willing to follow that truth that leads to freedom.

James Nayler, Salutation to the Seed of God

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Nothing quainter than our practice of minuting

It’s not the same as taking minutes of a board meeting or city council session, but ours has a dimension all its own. Originating in the recording of persecutions in the initial decades of the Quaker movement, and in the subsequent petitions for redress and justice, our earliest minutes tell of “sufferings for Truth’s sake” and soon lead into the efforts of determining just what it means to live as a people of conscience.

Sometimes today we find the practice burdensome or unnecessary. Friends who follow the Old Ways in this matter will draft and read aloud the record on that part of the agenda, moving ahead only after that minute has been revised to satisfaction and approved. It’s slow and tedious, but it does focus the deliberations.

Here, the concept of clerking – especially for the recording clerk – has a meaning related to “clerk of court,” where the official records decisions from the bench above. In our case, Friends traditionally saw the high judge as Christ, and the meeting gathered as witnesses who would voice the sense of the resolution. I suppose we might see Friends attending our business sessions as a jury, then. If it were only as simple as guilty or not guilty!


So what were the practices of the original Friends?

Prayer, fasting, study of Scripture, plus the soup of other currents fed into their theology – the political, social, and economic upheaval of an extraordinary chapter of world history.

There are also the successive generations’ backing off from that, ultimately into earthly riches (that capitalist twist). From Levellers and Diggers came descendants who wound up as Whigs and Republicans.

And on to our own mix – the New Age or the undefined generic religion, with its own response: how can we stand with something sustained and unique? (Friends can acknowledge those who left Quaker Meeting for Zen sitting or Catholic orders or the Eastern Orthodox down the street, where – they’ve said – they found something more concrete.)

I see, too, how often we settle for conformity rather than consensus or deep unity. How often, as well, we forget to be loving – even Light-hearted.


Let’s be fair

One of the difficulties facing modern pastors or priests is that congregations expect them to assume all three of the historic Quaker offices – to be ministers, elders, and overseers – while few individuals are gifted in more than one. Somebody who’s great in the pulpit may be lousy in hospital visits or in coping with children. Add to that expectations as administrator or chief executive or even as a major fundraiser or organizational planner, and you can imagine the stresses and burnout that result.


Essential elements to acknowledge

Let our relationships be enhanced as we consider the nature of Seed. There are certain qualities all plants arising from seeds possess in common: the work of photosynthesis in response to sunlight, for one, and some form of rooting. Yet each seed is also true to its own nature, whether it be a sequoia or a strawberry vine. As our own lives unfold in response to the divine Light, our personal and unique qualities also come into play and are to be encouraged. This stands in stark contrast to a more conventional teaching that would have each of us becoming a miniature Jesus as we take up a cross in imitation of his suffering. Instead, we are drawn toward the Light – as both Christ and Logos – and have life in consequence. In this relationship, we are created in the image of God.


Give the poor clerk a break

There’s a tendency in many unprogrammed (“silent”) meetings to turn the clerk into a de facto pastor. This is curious when we consider the widespread resistance in the same meetings to recognize ministers, elders, and overseers – historic roles a modern clerk becomes expected to fill, at least in part. This is something I had observed long before agreeing to serve as clerk of our meeting. (Five years, as it turned out.)

The fact that programmed Friends have both a pastor and a clerk should be a healthy reminder.

The message for quietist Friends like us is that the central job of the clerk is to moderate our business sessions. Yes, by extension, the clerk typically becomes a Public Friend empowered to speak on behalf of the congregation. Other expectations creep in, almost unseen – as the Most Visible Friend is sought out to solve Meeting problems left and right.

No, this one will rarely solve the problem. Our strength is that we ALL have active roles in this faith community. Please stand up and take a bow for the ways you contribute.


Arise and shine in the new morning

James Nayler opens his 1655 tract, Salutation to the Seed of God, with this perplexing decree:

Arise, shine forth, thou seed of the covenant, to which the promise is, for thy glory to come; and with judgment is the Lord arisen to redeem his chosen, and all that turn to him shall be covered with righteousness, even that which before the world was, and above all the world is, which is perfect for evermore.

The dense sentence, overlapping itself with metaphor, has more in common with contemporary poetry than it does with analytic exposition. At the outset of the 38-page tract (as it appears in the Collected Works), this galvanizing invocation addresses a puzzling first-person singular “Seed of the Covenant.”

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It’s not the building

One of the most revolutionary concepts the Society of Friends has upheld is an understanding of “church” as a body of believers – not as the building or organization or a hierarchy or even a nearby bishop. This sense of a gathering of the saints is the reason ours is a “meeting” of the church – of the believers – and why we gather in a meetinghouse, rather than a building calling itself the church. For that matter, early Friends typically referred to the gathering place of other denominations as a “steeplehouse,” thus emphasizing a distinction between the building and its users.