For the ministers, elders, and overseers: examining the Meeting itself

As I wrote at the time: “If it’s not too presumptuous, I feel a need to consider the Queries for the Preparative Meeting as well. Friends have always held themselves accountable to the Meeting in their public work, and thus I offer up the following. If nothing else, it will help Meeting keep track of whatever trouble I get into.”


REHOBOTH MILLS: I have been diligent in attending Meeting for Worship wherever I am, but must admit great difficulty with Meeting for Business at Rehoboth, usually coming away with a headache and feeling trouble with the manner of Friends here. Have felt a need to pull away from its business after the handling of the issue of homosexual marriage. However, I have felt for some time a deep need for that ancient tradition of intervisitation among Friends and have concentrated my efforts there. Your minute of introduction and support is deeply appreciated; presenting it in these travels brings joy, even when Friends react with an initial jolt of surprise, like “what are we supposed to do with this?” And then they see. So another of our ancient traditions is being revived. It is a pleasure to discover other Friends traveling with minutes; indeed, at Sandy Spring Meeting, when one Friend mentioned that he had just received approval to visit fellow scientists in Siberia, a voice cried out, “Do you have a minute from Meeting?” and one was approved on the spot, following the worship! It has also been a blessing to be able to attend Midweek Meeting in my travels, especially when York PA Monthly Meeting reopened the old Fawn Grove Meeting House this summer and fall – Fifth-Day evening was often the time I was heading back from my travels, and it was a delight to pace my driving to arrive there in time for deep worship. Other opportunities for wider fellowship have included gatherings of the New Foundations fellowship (which examines the original work of George Fox, seeking to remind Friends of our powerful, primitive roots in Christ) and with the Tract Association of Friends in Philadelphia, where I discover I am not the only Winona member to be serving – Anna Glick being the senior member. In March, I attended a conference at Pendle Hill on vocal ministry; we were deeply blessed in the occasion to share the growing awareness of the workings of our Lord Jesus in our Religious Society of Friends, and to share the sometimes frightening experiences we discover as the Lord lifts us up in His service. So this pounding and shaking is normal! Meetings I have attended in the last year and a half: Ministry and Oversight Committee at Cambridge (had called a Friend who had attended the Pendle Hill weekend and she said, “I’d love to see you when you’re in town, but I have to go to a committee meeting that night; wait a minute! Why don’t you help me report on our Pendle Hill experience!” So we did), Mount Holly NJ, York PA, Warrington PA (QM there), Menallen PA (QM again), EFA Church at Williamsport PA (Midweek Meeting), Ohio Yearly Meeting at Barnesville, Rehoboth and Rocky Run MMs Rehoboth, Limestone at Sparks MD, Pipe Creek at Union Bridge MD, Sandy Spring MD, Adelphi MD, Lehigh Valley MM at Bethlehem PA, opening up of Fawn Grove MH (PA) for Midweek Meeting, 57th Street Meeting in Chicago IL, Deer Creek at Darlington MD, Little Falls MD, and Midweek Meeting at Middleton. I come away from these travels convinced that Christ desires to reclaim his Meetings – everywhere I go I find tender, fragile sprouts of renewal, of Friends turning to Jesus. But great love and nurture are required, and a sense of oppression comes over us to often. Remember us in your prayers, as we remember you.

JANE’S FALLS: None of our meetings for worship is attended as well as they should be. We feel that fact, painfully, when we look around our nearly empty meetinghouses and yearn for all of the benches to be swarming with human life once again. I value the commitment of Ohio Friends who worship together faithfully – that witness and practice remains an inspiration to me; in other Friends’ circles, there is a need for the members and attenders to be more regular and devoted in their attendance; and everywhere, we are surrounded by many spiritually desperate, hungry people we are failing to reach. For whatever reasons, we fail to spread abroad the invitation to join in our spiritual communion and fellowship. We hesitate to invite others to attend with us. Early Friends marched boldly into the marketplace to proclaim the Truth; modern Friends wonder if we should even place a notice in the newspaper or a line in the telephone book. I wish I had answers to the challenging situation before us; I wish I knew how we could break through to those I see all around who reach for a Budweiser first thing 1st-Day morning or who so passionately decry anything smacking of religion or church.

Fortunately, our meetinghouses are not empty spiritually: our Lord has promised that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, that He will be there as well. Some of the most powerful times of worship I’ve shared in the past two years have been in the smallest gatherings, in the evening at Jack and Susan’s, with Anna Glick, or in the York midweek meeting held in our homes. If we are faithful in our waiting spiritual worship and free Gospel, prophetic ministry, He will be faithful in preserving a remnant through these troubled times.

Sensing when to invite others is sometimes difficult. About a month ago, I drove across the state to worship at a small meeting. When I arrived, the doors were locked and nobody else was around. There was some small lettering indicating the worship was observed on alternate weeks – this being the off week. Since I was early, I thought maybe this was old information, that my other sources were more up-to-date; I went off and walked through the village burial ground, in part to center down a bit from the drive. But I felt a prompting to go back and then, if no one were there, I’d still have time to attend another meeting down the road. When I returned, a man was sitting on the front steps. We began speaking; it turned out he lived nearby, so he invited me in for a cup of coffee and began pouring out his life’s history, of alcoholism, drugs, the sea, violence – and his coming through that. He had never been to a “Protestant” service, but when, in due course, I asked how long it took to get to the other location, he asked if he could come along. I had been expecting that. The following week, a Friend asked if so-and-so had attended meeting with me, and then told me they had known of his situation and promised to be tender to his needs.

A few weeks before, though, I had surprised the waitress serving my table by recognizing the spiritual emblem in her necklace, and then noting that the beads were sandalwood. That allowed her to inform me that she was a Sufi and that there was no group around with which she could meditate; on hearing of our Friends’ meetings, she was curious and wanted to attend, and yet failed to meet me when and where she had agreed. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. Perhaps the seed will sprout in its own time.

AGAMENTICUS LANDING: Too often we find our lives cluttered by busyness and over-scheduling. The first thing we eliminate, seemingly by necessity of the press of the moment, is what we need the most for our long-term well-being – those practices that sustain our spiritual health, both as individuals and as a community of faith. As a consequence, awareness of God’s presence in our lives is typically intermittent and fleeting rather than sustained and nurturing.

Under these circumstances, our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit becomes dimmed, and our responses to her leadings more constrained than we would like. Even so, we are heartened and strengthened by those among us who are more faithful in their steadfastness, whether in their individual responses to seemingly small, local needs or in matters of international significance.

A few Agamenticus Friends engage in continual Bible reading, including some in weekly study circles, but many others are largely “Bible illiterate.” As a community, many of us do engage in widespread reading in fields pertaining to our spiritual life – Quaker, Judeo-Christian, and world religions as well as related topics in economics, politics, psychology, history, and the like. What is missing is a core of shared readings that build on our sense of community experience.

For some of us, Jesus stands as a prophetic pattern, a guidepost for our own conduct or the central figure in our spiritual legacy. Others of us see him as a historical pillar, a great man among other inspirational models.

Most of us would welcome more time in our daily rounds for prayer and/or meditation. Amid our busy daily lives, we need to find moments for prayerful, inward turning; perhaps these can be found, with discipline, while doing routine activities – while washing dishes or commuting, for instance. Those individuals among us who do uphold regular times of prayer and silent waiting imbue the entire community with a blessing.

WILLOW BROOK: It has been a long personal journey to this point. I am reminded of the need for the ministers and elders to take care of each other, with that being the first and primary concern of Ministry and Counsel.

The function of Ministry and Counsel as being the one committee that does not report to monthly meeting but rather floats somewhere independent of it is a new concept, despite its history. I now wonder how that allows us to move ahead on my monthly meeting’s problems.


For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Marriage and family enrichment

JANE’S FALLS: We can do much more on this front. Affirming individuals and families with the love and prayers of our faith community is essential. Yet we are also aware of instances in which we have felt unprepared or ill equipped to respond adequately. In this cases, counseling may best occur outside our immediate Meetings, through the confidentiality of trained therapists. Our Meetings should be prepared to have available the names of suitable, licensed pastoral counselors to assist in marital or family conflicts, personal or career decisions, separation/divorce, coping with loss, the psychological aspects of physical illness, crisis points in individual growth, or the healing of deep psychic wounds. Our Meetings might also consider bearing some of the costs of such counseling, if necessary.

Where Meetings are blessed with the presence of children, there may be many opportunities for members to step in and assist families in day-to-day activities, as well as more formal situations.

SYCAMORE GROVE: The greater the extent a Meeting can become a place of openness and loving acceptance, the more likely its ability to be sensitive to the problems within individual families.

For me, the concept of Small Group, a largely Mennonite phenomenon, has been quite helpful in strengthening and enriching my life both in Rehoboth and now in the Boston area. I suspect there is a role it can play within many of our Meetings, especially the larger and more diverse ones. The Small Group is a covenant body, usually of six to sixteen people, who agree to meet periodically – whether it be weekly, every other week, or even once a month – to share meals, singing, group study, prayer, fellowship, discipleship, whatever – and to provide a “safe place” to express their life’s struggles in a trusting, nonjudgmental, loving, and confidential circle. Often, these bodies are comprised of couples, but there is also a place for singles such as myself. Its members are often within a single generational span, and share similar difficulties and goals – young professionals who have moved to the city, for instance. (Emerson Lasher’s The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Handbook for Humility and Success covers some of this in a humorous and revealing manner.) It requires commitment, however, and a degree of unity.

Submit to one another out of a reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5: 12

WILLOW BROOK: We both wonder if my introverted ways are better fitted to a monastic existence, one focused more on my writing than on dealing with others. Is there any resolution?


For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Family life

REHOBOTH MILLS: We have had great struggles at Rehoboth Meeting over the issue of same-gender marriages. When I asked for scriptural support for such action, I was called a bigot by one member of the Ministry and Counsel committee. Yet when I turned to my Bible for answers, Jude kept opening. I have love for the couple who requested – and finally received – the Meeting’s approval, but one of the couple feels some bitterness toward me as a result of my objections on scriptural grounds. (I must admit some ambivalence here, because despite the Apostle Paul’s instruction to keep women silent in Meeting, we know some of our best ministers in Ohio Yearly Meeting are women – and early Friends were wise enough to give priority to other words in scripture, freeing our women to proclaim the Everlasting Gospel. Likewise, I sense that it may also be possible to use Paul’s “better to marry rather than burn” in the context of our gay and lesbian Friends – but without the attempt to turn to scripture as well as the Holy Spirit, we run the grave risk of following our own wills rather than God’s continuing revelation.) One thing that has happened out of this discussion is that another Friend in New England Yearly Meeting, on the basis of my difficulties noted above, found herself turning systematically to the Bible for one of the first times in her religious experience; while she favors Meeting sanction of homosexual unions, she did do the necessary homework to support her position – and since she is serving on a Yearly Meeting committee dealing with the controversy, they will not be begging the issue of scriptural guidelines. In the discussions at Rehoboth, I felt much sadness when one member of the Ministry and Counsel committee admitted – and seemed to be proud of the fact – that we don’t counsel couples about birth control, parenting, their relationships, caring for one another, and so on. To me that seemed to be another indication of the breakdown of our Gospel order. This member spoke of marriages Meeting had approved, nevertheless fearing that they wouldn’t work out – and were elated when, years later, one of them had! Or their surprise when those they fully expected to last ended in divorce. Something is deeply lacking in the oversight of our membership, as a Religious Society of Friends in general, when we cannot turn to one another for guidance and support in all phases of our life, knowing that obedience to God’s will rather than our own limited understanding is what should be drawing us together as Friends. On a more personal level, I must acknowledge the difficulties of dating in an era when the biggest question is not whether one should kiss on the first date – but is instead a matter of going to bed with the other on the first date. Loneliness is widespread today, and meeting our potential helpmeet, difficult. As one woman said to me, “We are the walking wounded.” But many of the wounds seem to be self-imposed. Celibacy, however difficult, can also be a blessing, as more and more singles are beginning to discover. For Friends, it can help enable us to know one another in that which is eternal, as George Fox has instructed us. And yet many of us have deep needs for affection and tenderness. It is a difficult road to follow. And yet finding myself obeying the divine voice has led to new clarity and strength. In laying my desire for and need of the right mate before the Lord – asking His will in this matter, His strength, His patience – I am finding prayer answered when I least expect it … and in the most surprising manner. We need to be constantly mindful that within the core of the family is the nucleus of our community, the model for our Christian unity, and the base for extending His work here on earth. A marriage that strives for that ideal blesses us all. Dear Friends, your faithfulness in this gladdens my heart and gives me hope, even at this distance.

[NOTE: Years later, as Agamenticus Friends wrestled with issues of same-gender marriage, the Meeting opened its examination to the broader question of just what does it mean to be “married under the care of Meeting” – and from that, just what is marriage from a Biblical perspective. A visiting Quaker minister led a workshop that saw at least two quite different kinds of marriage in Scripture – one based on having children (Genesis 1, “be fruitful and multiply”) in contrast to the “suitable helpmeet” or even opposite of Genesis 2-3. To that we can add the illicit passion of Song of Songs. Linking the helpmeet to marry rather than burn, realizing that a heterosexual marriage might not end the “burning with desire,” was a personal breakthrough in understanding. The struggle we underwent together has led us to a much clearer understanding of marriage itself within a Scriptural framework.]

JANE’S FALLS: While the query is directed at the meeting, I feel it directs me individually in a different way, reminding me of my deeply perceived need for Right Relationship and Companionship – resulting in children – maintained within the faith. I am reminded of a Friend who remarked that she could not really comprehend Scripture until she had a child of her own, and then she saw how clearly God works with us as our parent. There is a growth that accompanies real commitment together on a daily, intimate level. There is an understanding of the parent-child relationship in our own growth with our Heavenly Father. In a committed meeting, where members accept the responsibility of their membership, we have an example of community that can be family as well – the family of God. In that, the nurturing is not always as a designated program or formal counseling, but sometimes something as simple as babysitting for an hour. We need to share our lives more fully, in all phases.

WILLOW BROOK: Family has turned out to be quite different from what I had envisioned. Being “suitable helpmeets” for each other proves surprisingly complex in daily interactions, which turn out to be far more time-constrained than I’d imagined.

Like most of the marriages in the Meeting, mine is among those in which only one partner is involved in the worshipping community, which raises additional questions of what kind of assistance can be offered – and how. We have our difficulties. At least my wife is comfortable with many Friends and our values – sometimes, more than I am.

We hope to be more welcoming to Friends over the dinner table and similar activities, but keep finding the calendar is crowded.


For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Living in Truth

SYCAMORE GROVE: No oaths or double standard of truth.

Several months ago, when “John from Tri-State Megabucks” phoned the office to report that week’s winning number, he asked, in an attempt to be friendly, if I had my ticket in hand. “No,” I replied, “it’s against my religion.” I felt strengthened through that testimony and sensed his surprise on the other end of the line that there might be another position on the practice. At the same time, though, I was prompted to extend to him a tenderness that could reach across our differences; a “holier than thou” attitude will accomplish nothing.

My deeper concern here is in the growing “something for nothing” attitude that infects our legal system, our marketplaces, and our public lotteries.

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. – James 1: 2

WILLOW BROOK: The more difficult and elusive side of this comes in being fully honest, regardless of any fear of reaction. Half-truths or unvoiced realities are just as corrosive as lies, as I’m discovering. To be fully honest requires courage and a willingness to encounter conflict, neither of them my strong points.


For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Testimonies involving oaths and gambling

JANE’S FALLS: I carefully maintain the use of affirmation rather than oath, when the occasion arises, especially on legal forms. I avoid participation in games of chance, including those presented by charitable causes, and joyfully throw out all “sweepstakes” and other junk mail unopened.

My employment does require me to prepare the New England lottery numbers for newspaper publication each Saturday night, an act that I perform with a sense of uneasiness. Yet that has been eye-opening, in seeing the response of so many of the composing room personnel to the lottery numbers, in discovering how widely the news services disseminate the information, and in receiving a number of phone calls each week from people wanting to discover if they’ve won. (Several times, I’ve received phone calls from a women in Florida who “need” to know that night’s number – imagine the extra expense in that long-distance call!) This job duty has convinced me of the cancerous nature of this get-rich-quick mentality, regardless of the revenue it supposedly raises for the support of New Hampshire schools.

I am more bothered by the giveaways on many of the so-called “Christian” radio stations in this country. I need to be faithful to protest, when opportunity presents.


For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Refusing to swear

REHOBOTH MILLS: I have used the occasions to uphold our testimony of using the affirmation rather than an oath, when such have come up on legal documents this past year. It always strengthens my spirit when I do so. And yet we must also recognize that the affirmation is becoming in practice another way of saying, in effect, that we just might have a double standard of truth. As such, it becomes an easy escape when we ought perhaps to be refusing to answer at all. I do want to share with Friends the one occasion when I was tendered the oath in a courtroom; this was in the divorce, something that was completely against everything I believed in and yet something that could not be turned back, something that had support in Matthew (and I have been so grateful that Dean opened my eyes to that passage, though he probably does not remember doing so); when I said, “I cannot swear but I will take the affirmation,” the judge gave me an annoyed look, Patt realized that great growth had been occurring in my religious life, and I tasted once again that victory the Lord holds out to His people. Sometimes this happens in the most unlikely places!

With gambling, it is a great strength to be able to smile and simply say, “It’s against my religion.”

But is that a cop-out?

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Practicing simplicity

SYCAMORE GROVE: Simplicity can be rather complicated. It’s not an aesthetic, nor a drab or dreary lifestyle, nor even living without a refrigerator (which I once attempted). Rather, I’m finding more and more it’s a matter of keeping Christ in the center of my life. When I see this simplicity as a matter of keeping balance on the straight and narrow way – of walking with Jesus toward a destination he directs – rather than as a static state that outwardly resembles either a Zen temple or an Old Order suit, I more gladly suffer the disorder that life provides. Simplicity should allow time and space for surprises and for service. If in my manner of living, my speech, and my apparel I somehow lose our expression of gladness and thankfulness, I would guess that I’ve also lost my simplicity.

Curiously, moving to a new and slightly smaller apartment has caused me to reorganize, reevaluate, and simplify my manner of living. In doing so, I’m finding a renewed vitality and strength. Keeping priorities in focus is another form of simplicity – and an empowering one.

Sincerity in speech means being willing to say “no” distinctly and to take unpopular stands. It involves a readiness to voice irritations and hurts, rather than masking them.

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Living in the world (testimony of plainness and/or simplicity)

JANE’S FALLS: Outwardly, my lifestyle would appear to many people as simple – even austere or severe – and my modesty of apparel would tend toward the drab or even seedy. There is a big difference between self-negation, which would deny the goodness of God’s creation, and partaking of the Bread of Life.

This insight was emphasized when, after returning from a trip that included a visit in an Old Order Mennonite home, I realized that even with my computer and stereo, my household was plainer than theirs, comparatively lacking in colorful and comforting touches such as living plants, afghans, and samplers on the walls.

Since then, I’ve been becoming aware of the dimensions of a tension within me; one side desires the community symbolized by Old Order plainness, and another is nurtured in expressive flair. I’m recognizing that this second side has been deeply repressed in recent years, as much by a feeling of poverty as by any religious concern. (As a profession, journalists are being paid even less than teachers these days; as a result, it becomes very easy for me to embrace a “simplicity” that rejects any form of monetary expenditure.)

Coming to grips with some very basic practices, such as ordering well-made and styled clothing that is both simple and expressive, has been an unexpectedly liberating exercise, one that helps me overcome feelings of victimization and deprivation in America’s highly materialistic society. When these things become personal idols, then we need to worry.

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Plainness and simplicity

REHOBOTH MILLS: Until we can be grateful for whatever we have been given – and be freed from that deep craving for the endless desires of the numberless things of this world – there can be no true peace. No true peace in the world or in our hearts. This is not a support of injustice, for we are required to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Lord. Simplicity can be such a complex issue! The old Quaker Disciplines called for “plainness” instead, and we have seen how that could degenerate into a series of outward signs without an accompanying inward transformation – that great danger of Phariseeism; and yet I treasure the close friendship of a young Plain Friend and his wife, both of whom find in the practice a hedge against the temptations of this world and discover through their clothing and speech many opportunities to witness for the Lord, through the inquiries of others. And they find that because of their practice, they cannot even consider doing things and going places that I could “incognito.” Simplicity includes the use of our time and commitments as well as our material possessions. It involves keeping Christ first in our lives, the focus of our activity. And it involves clinging to His righteousness. The demands of making a living have too often hindered my spiritual practice; I continually accept demanding jobs that require long hours and much commitment. John Woolman’s pulling back from his trade is becoming an inspiration to me, and I feel a similar transformation coming up in my own life. And yet I will not make any change until I am convinced that the Lord is opening the way and leading me. Last week I attended a sales training session in Chicago; one of the central points I came away with was this: that the most important part of selling is in earning the client’s trust in you. Without that trust, the other steps in selling are in vain: convincing him that you can help him, that your product or service will fill his specific need, that this is the time to buy, that the two of you are ready to close the sale. So truthfulness and carefulness in fulfilling promises are worth more than gold. And being fair and just in these dealings is essential in keeping that trust.

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Upholding peace and social justice

SYCAMORE GROVE: The buildup of armaments and troops along the Iraqi border reminds us of the hidden costs of an “American way of life” addicted to relatively cheap imported petroleum. The chemical weapons and nuclear potential within Iraq also remind us how readily some individuals and corporations allow their own greed to endanger the world’s welfare.

The military pervades our national society so thoroughly that our participation is often unwitting: a telephone excise tax, for instance, may be more invisible than the bulk of our federal income taxes, but no less invidious. Our national balance-of-trade deficit may be blamed on Japanese imports, while ignoring the cost of maintaining U.S. troops overseas. And no one dares criticize the governmental folly or self-indulgence.

I watch the children outside my window as they reflect the violent values they learn from commercial television – to say nothing of the continual message of materialism as the basis of our happiness and human fulfillment, or the expectation of being entertained endlessly because of their underlying boredom.

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