You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?
Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?
Margaret Fell, quoting from her first encounter with George Fox
My three words for 2015
The end/beginning of the year is a great time to find people reflecting
on their lives and writing about their commitments. This morning, I was
grateful to read Bono’s A-Z reflections on 2014.
Most of the buzz is about his bike accident and his broken arm. But I was
personally struck by his quote from Nietzsche, that “to do something great
requires ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.”
This is probably the big lesson for my life right now.
I have to keep seeking ways to make my life and my work sustainable. Managing my time, my energy, my resources, my happiness, to hold up over the long haul.
Life is not a sprint. Building a family (marriage, kids, aging parents, etc) and homemaking is a long term project. Being a real part of a local meeting is not something I can put off indefinitely. Taking time for health care and mental and physical strength building and stretching are necessary along the way, not just “when this [day, week, month, year, event…] is over.”
My job is not a sprint. Did you know that, at 3 and a half years, this is already the longest I have ever held a single job? And now I’m in the process of making plans for the next five years, not for my departure in the next six months or anything like that. It’s a little scary, and I’ve realized it means I can’t run flat out for the next three years. I’ve been working on this balance for the last eight months or so, but I have a long way to go to figure out how to do the best I can for as long as it takes.
And this word also leads to thinking about the world, and
fossil fuels, and social justice, and what is possible in my lifetime and the
long-term prospects for life on Earth.
I want to have the courage of my convictions, to lead confidently
when that is my responsibility and opportunity, to do scary things when that’s
my job (at home or at work), to finish things and say they’re done for better
or worse, instead of letting them wobble on. I want to have the courage to
admit my mistakes and correct course, and to say no when the opportunity is not
right. And I want to encourage other people to be brave, about following their
leadings, about telling me the truth, and encouraging others in their turn.
All of these will require the grace of God, and Jesus as an example to follow and as the Consoler, as I move forward, day by day and moment by moment, this year and for as long as I may live.
One time a journalist supposedly asked a bishop, “Do you really believe that prayer changes things?” And the bishop answered, “Well, when I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't.”
The painter Picasso supposedly said, “Inspiration comes, but it has to find you working.”
This is a long story.
I went to Bible study at my new meeting for the first time today. That’s two and a half years since I started coming here, for those who are keeping track at home. Over the last 15 years or so, when I might have been interested in going to Bible study, mostly I have said to my husband, “That’s okay, dear, you go. I’ll stay home and bring the children to meeting for worship later.” And really, it was fine. But now I realize we are in a new phase of life – our children could walk themselves to Meeting without us if they had to, and I can go to Bible study if I want to.
So yesterday, Chris and I went to a daylong conference organized by our new yearly meeting for Friends interested in Ministry and Worship. Really, we went as a favor to the organizer. We stepped in at the last minute to lead an afternoon workshop on adult religious education. (We showed a Nooma film with Rob Bell, among other things!) But in the morning, we were talking to another Friend from our new meeting about the Bible study he was planning to lead today and the blueberry coffee cake he was planning to make, and I said, hmm, maybe I should go.
Last night Chris and I talked about the logistics, and it turned out that the boys were willing to go early if they could get a ride and have some blueberry coffee cake, so we decided to all go. Then just before bed, Chris informed me that the group was reading the Gospel of Thomas, and I was skeptical. I haven’t studied the ordinary Bible enough, do I want to start on the Gnostic Gospels too? I decided I was just really tired, and that I ought to go, because it’s my meeting community not because of whichever book they’re reading. So I said, well, I’m not setting my alarm. If I wake up in time to go, that’s great, but if not, I’m going to sleep as long as I need to.
But lo and behold, I was wide awake and ready to leave by 9:30 am. We got to the meetinghouse, got some coffee and a choice between banana-nut or blueberry-orange breads. Yum. Then I had to ask Chris, so where does this group actually meet? He pointed to the room under the stairs at the back of the kitchen. There were five of us for Bible study today, and the reading was
interesting and the worship-sharing was interesting, but I think now
that’s not really why I was meant to go today.
I had never fully been in that room before. I didn’t know there was a lending library in there. I had only seen the historical books in the library room upstairs. There were a lot of good books in the collection. On the shelves across the room from where I was sitting, I saw a book I’ve been wanting to read for a couple of years now, called Sustaining Our Spirits: Women Leaders Thriving for Today and Tomorrow. It was recommended to me by Mary Ellen McNish, one of the authors. So that was cool. And when I walked over to look more closely, I found another book that I really need to read right now, called Leading from Within: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead from the Center for Courage and Renewal (Parker Palmer’s outfit).
Here’s a poem that I really needed this week:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
But the real reason I went to Bible study this morning is because I have to show up for the things that are happening at my meeting. I have to say yes to the long form improv scene that is the life of my spiritual community. Worship this morning was so full for me. Full of new insights and old lessons and bubbling over with ideas. I needed that. I needed Bible study this morning. I needed the workshop yesterday afternoon. I need the community that gathered there, and here. I need to say yes to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, not just no to all the things that feel like distractions from my job and my family life.
I love opportunities to get together informally with Friends – this was the original basis of the convergent Friends dinner parties I organized a few years ago. In the last year, the Quaker Revival and Nursery of Truth had some of the same characteristics of taking advantage of the presence of a visiting minister to gather local Friends for worship and conversation and a shared meal. I think the most important part of these gatherings is the opportunity to share our joys and concerns with other Friends, some familiar and some new faces, and the encouragement we take home from them, knowing we are not alone in walking the Quaker path.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with several small groups of Friends while traveling for work. In each case, the gathering was around 15 people from multiple monthly meetings in a local area. In each case the conversation somewhat naturally turned to the future of the Religious Society of Friends. And the message I was given to share with the group in each case was
“Do not be discouraged.”
I understand that the state of the Religious Society of Friends and of any particular local group can be discouraging. I think that is par for the course. In life. At least in this lifetime.
So if Quakerism and Quakers are just going to be discouraging, what are we supposed to do?
The answer is perseverance. Forgiving 70 times 7 times. And coming back, and showing up, and not letting the tedious or the insidious or the pompous get you down so much that you give up and go away and don't come back. That is the Tempter speaking to you: telling you it’s not worth it; these people will never change; there’s a better group out there somewhere.
Just as God and grace frequently become present to us through other people, Evil becomes present to us through other people, sometimes in the most banal ways. C.S. Lewis said that better than I can, but he was right. Evil is not always grandiose. Even the biggest evils, for example, apartheid, are made up of a lot of small pedantries.
This is different from Way Closing. There can be a sense of rightness in something ending. People, and all animals, die. Campaigns end. People change religions. Meetings in a particular place are laid down. This can be rightly ordered. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between this and giving up prematurely. That’s advanced discernment, for sure.
In any case, this is not a new phenomenon.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged*
Take it to the Lord in prayer
That's an old song, written by Joseph Scriven in 1855. Isaiah 42 was written long before that, and it's a whole chapter on the same theme.
As far as positive advice for Friends who are feeling discouraged, I have two thoughts. One is that we have to encourage each other, in living rooms and at kitchen tables, in meetinghouses, on street corners and in the pickup line at preschool. This is one of my favorite parts of my calling to ministry, which is further enabled by my current employment, but certainly didn't start with getting hired and I doubt will end when the paychecks do. If you know someone who is doing good work, encourage him/her and be encouraged by her/him. It's not actually all that complicated, and it's really important.
I actually think this is my personal answer to what the Religious Society of Friends needs right now. On my better days, I practice a ministry of encouragement. I aspire to humbly and boldly follow in the footsteps of Margaret Fell as a nursing mother of Quakerism. If you have ever felt that you weren’t getting enough encouragement among Friends, consider whether instead God is calling you to encourage others.
Second, and here I'm cheating a little because this is really seven things, read Chuck Fager's article, The Seven Ups, courtesy of Western Friend magazine, and follow his advice:
Toughen Up. And
Don’t Hurry Up.
Keep up the good work, all of you.
*I wanted to quote this song in the title of this post, but I found that I had already used the most relevant line as a title of a previous blogpost. Here is a set of other blog posts by me referencing the same song: http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/search?q=take+it+to+the+lord+in+prayer [This was just a simple search, but I think it produced a fascinating cross-section of this blog.]
I may be suffering from a lack of ordinariness. Most of my life, I have wished for exciting things to happen to me. And now that they are happening, I miss the simple things that I don’t have time for. Like making jam. Gardening. Sewing. Teaching First Day School. Serving on clearness committees.
Recently, I was at an international committee meeting that was hosted by Friends in a thriving meeting in a small town. I was really touched by the obvious care and concern and interwoven nature of their personal lives and their meeting life. It made me think of two passages on marriage that I love, in Catherine Whitmire’s book, Plain Living,
“We thank God, then, for the pleasures, joys and triumphs of [life together]: for the cups of tea we bring each other, and the seedlings in the garden frame; for the domestic drama of meetings and partings, sickness and recovery; for the grace of occasional extravagance, flowers on birthdays and unexpected presents; for talk at evenings of the events of the day; for the ecstasy of caresses; for gay mockery at each other’s follies; for plans and projects, fun and struggle; praying that we may neither neglect nor undervalue these things, nor be tempted to think of them as self-contained and self-sufficient.”
from London Yearly Meeting, 1960.
And a poem by Ellen Sophia Bosanquet, from 1938:
If truth be told,
It was not priest, who made us one,
circled with gold,
Nor soft delights when day is done
and arms enfold.
These bonds are firm,
but in death-storm
They may not hold-- We were welded man and wife By hammer-strokes of daily life.
[Bold emphasis mine]
I think these two images, the kind gestures of the cups of tea we bring each other, and the hammer-strokes of daily life, are both key to marriage and to meeting-life.
It takes time and active participation to be part of a meeting, just as marriage takes work and attention. It’s the same drudgery of washing dishes or making a budget work. The important conversations (and cups of tea) at the kitchen table late at night or in clearness committees for marriage or membership. The misunderstandings, getting hot under the collar, practicing forgiveness and receiving forgiveness, year after year. This is what makes a meeting or a marriage.
Any marriage is part of a family made up of marriages, and part of a wider community. This is where we learn that while every marriage is unique, it has a lot in common with other people. Likewise, a meeting needs the family of yearly meeting, and a wider community of Friends, where we sometimes learn other ways of solving our problems and sometimes we learn just to be grateful for what we have, and the problems we don’t have.
I don’t think I could do the job I have now without the grounding of 17 years of being part of San Francisco Monthly Meeting, the support and the hammer-blows of our daily life together. I think I need to be more connected to my new meeting, to stay fluent in Quaker practice, and to be a coherent, spiritual human being, in order to continue to be a blessing to the wider family of Friends.
I know I couldn’t do my job without the ongoing support and dedication of my husband. I have also learned a lot that is useful in this job from being a mother. I am blessed. I am grateful.
I don't know Rob Bell. But I'd like to thank him for his work. Thank you for writing books that I like to read. But thank you even more for writing books that my 15 year old son likes to read and that we can talk about afterwards.
The first one of his books that I read was Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. It's a reminder of all the different ways people have been Christians and how there can be more than one way to follow Jesus just like there is more than one way to paint a picture of Elvis. (Just re-reading pieces of it while writing this blogpost was inspiring all over again.)
Our copy of SexGod: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality has about the most boring cover you could imagine. But it is a beautiful work of thinking and writing on the inside. I hope my sons will read this one too. (For those of you who worry about these things coming from an Evangelical Christian, as far as I can remember, it doesn't talk about same gender relationships. Neither condemning nor affirming. It is clearly heteronormative but fairly progressive about male-female roles in heterosexual relationships. If you can translate from that to your own situation, you might like it.)
Somebody gave us a copy of Drops Like Stars, about creativity and suffering. It's beautiful, but I didn't really get it. But eventually, I figured out that it wasn't written for me. Me who likes to read all the words, the writer, the know-it-all, the girl-who-always-raises-her-hand-in-class. It is designed for people who think like visual artists. You know who you are.
All of this came up because Chris brought home Bell's latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Chris read it, then I read it, then our 15 year old son read it while in meeting for worship the other week. [For more on teens reading in worship: part 1 and part 2] Bell asks why we still talk about God and how we have to be/get to be open to new ways of talking about God and deal with the both/and nature of much of the discussion. Then Bell explains that he thinks that God is with us, for us and ahead of us, and then why this all matters in this day and age. Right on, brother.
I don't actually agree with everything that Bell writes, but pretty close. And I find his books to be a very engaging and inspiring conversation partner and conversation starter. I asked my son if he thought other young Friends would be interested in reading and discussing it and his eyes got big and he said Yes. So let me encourage other Friends to bring this to the attention of any youth group or any mid-week study group - it's a fine way to get into the discussion about what we actually know or believe about God.
As usual, my timing is off regarding big moments in the blogosphere. I finally read Bell's 2011 book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
This caused a huge controversy a couple of years ago in Evangelical
circles but I didn't actually read it until I checked it out of the
library last week. (I was a little busy in 2011, and did not have the bandwidth to argue much about theology just then.) It has a lot in common withIf Grace is True and If God is Love by Phil Gulley and Jim Mulholland. Bell just issued a new version, Love Wins for Teens
which I don't quite understand because I think the original is pretty
accessible for teens, but maybe the new pink cover will appeal to a
So the last thing I want to write about is the rockstar pastor phenomenon. Rob Bell has been one of the biggest of this millenium. Best selling author, 10,000 member church at some point, one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2011, New Yorker profile in 2012. But he left that to move to California, write, surf and maybe make a tv show. I have to hope that he now has more time for his family.
I am grateful that Bell writes about his doubts about being a pastor, a Christian, a worthy human being. And I am happy for him that he was able to take a break, to step away from the push to do more, bigger, faster.
But I wonder about the rockstar Quakers I have known, who have charisma and depth, who aren't actually rockstar famous. Is that a good thing? Or not? This topic is probably another blogpost in itself, but I will just put it out there for you to think about.
My new meeting is having one of those recurring conversations about what do we want from First Day School? (FDS = our children's religious education program). I was not able to go to the first meeting because I was leaving town. So rather than expecting my husband to communicate my opinions, which are not always the same as his opinions, I decided to write some notes in advance and send them to the meeting's email group. I think it's important for a wide range of people to share their opinions about this, not just parents. This post is largely based on that email, with further embellishments as I continue to think about it.
My basic hope for FDS is that it will enable our children to know enough about their own spiritual lives and about being Quakers that they will want to and be able to choose to be Quakers.
I've written a few things about this topic before. See What do you want out of First Day School? and Middle School Affirmations from 2010. I didn't have a blog back when I was clerk of the CRE committee of my previous Meeting or there would be posts on the same topic from 2001-2004, mostly dealing with religious education for preschoolers. But you can see one of my earliest forays into the blogging community dealt with this, as a response to Martin Kelley's 2003 post about religious education for children.
In the earliest years, I think it's enough that our children just want to be with other people they know at meeting. When my son went to preschool for the first time at the age of three, I was astounded at what they can learn at that age. Reading books,
singing songs, making art, playing games with Friends - all good.
I think it's not developmentally appropriate for children under the age of maybe eight to be expected to sit still and silent for an hour. I wouldn't want them to do it very often in school or in meeting for worship. It can be done, and sometimes my kids did it. But mostly, I think young children need to walk in nature and experiment with different postures for sitting and have prayers spoken out loud for them. Then they can take their experience of the Divine with them into Meeting for Worship.
In the elementary school years, I hope they learn basic techniques to settle their bodies and center their minds and some awareness that there is something transcendent happening in worship and some language/vocabulary to start to talk about it. I hope that they will learn enough Quaker stories and enough Bible stories that they know they are part of a longer history. I
hope they will have opportunities to serve the meeting community - like setting up for hospitality after meeting or special events. I hope the children in my meeting can attend Junior Interim Meeting together. I don't think that children's religious education has to happen at the same time as meeting for worship, but it has to happen some time.
In middle school, I hope they have opportunities to experience longer periods of unprogrammed worship in different settings (like outside on the grass, or while biking in the Wissahickon park, or sitting on pillows upstairs or as a group in the meetingroom), and they learn about worship sharing and Quaker decision-making. I hope that they learn about other religions and about how to become a member of our meeting. I hope they do service projects in the community, and talk
about Quaker responses to current events, and have some time to just do silly fun things together. I hope they can attend the yearly meeting's middle school Friends retreats.
I hope that kids are actively encouraged to apply for membership at around 8th-9th grade, not just by their families, but by the meeting.
In high school, I hope that they attend meeting for worship and adult religious education programs and service projects and both family-based and teen-focused social events. I think it is good for the meeting to expect teens to participate and
to prepare for their attendance and participation in meeting-wide events. I think it is good for teens to go to visit other meetings, near and far, for worship and activities with teens at those meetings, and to welcome visiting groups at our meeting.
I used to say that my ulterior motive for organizing children's programs at meeting (and Quarterly, Yearly Meeting, etc)
was to be sure there were enough young Friends when my kids grew up that they could marry one. Not that they have to, but I wanted them to have the option. The other reason that good programs are important to me was because I want to go to all these Quaker events, and my kids have to go with me, and it behooves me to be sure that there is something worthwhile for them there. I have lots more to say, but I think this is enough for one blog post.
George Jones died this last week. Many country music singers said George was the one they admired most. But back in the early 1980s he wrote a song about all the singers he looked up to, called "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"
Who's gonna fill their shoes?
Who's gonna stand up tall?
Who's gonna play the Opry and the Wabash Cannonball?
Who's gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?
Lord, I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes?
Last week I thought a lot about leadership. I found a 35
year old report on leadership in the Religious Society of Friends that could
have been written last month. Same issues have been going on for at least that
long. Lack of trust, lack of shared vision, need for divine guidance and human accountability, unclear relationships between individuals, monthly meetings/churches and larger institutions...
Some of the solutions the report suggested would still be functional. One of the
problems with not having enough leadership is that good solutions don’t get
I've been thinking about that this week, and about the legacy of
Rufus Jones, and about Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, and the
idolatry of heroes, and the right balance of a well-lived life.
So Rufus Jones (1863-1948) is one of my heroes. He did so many things in his lifetime. He
helped Friends and others to reconcile modern science and religious
faith, to remember that Christian faith requires us to be active in the
world, not just pious in a sterile meetinghouse, and he worked for peace
and reconciliation within the Religious Society of Friends and in the wider world. That story you've heard about the Quakers who went to Germany to try to convince the Gestapo to let the Jews go? Yeah, Rufus Jones was one of them. And he was a great storyteller.
He also tried to rewrite Quaker history to show a direct connection to the mystical tradition in Europe that was not justified. He spoke every. single. time. and at great length in meeting for worship at Haverford College, for which he was mocked by students. In the last week, I've heard people criticize both his emphasis on mysticism without conversion of life and his emphasis on works over the transcendent. And I've heard he was a terrible driver. A man of giant gifts, giant vision and giant mistakes. That's okay, he is still one of my heroes. I think it's a form of idolatry to expect that our heroes must be perfect in every way. But who could possibly fill his shoes?
When I wrote a post in 2010 about all the imminent turnover in Quaker organizations, I wondered, "Will all these institutions survive this once in a lifetime mass shift
in leadership? How many will move in new and vibrant directions? Are
there too many openings at one time? Are there enough younger Friends
who are ready, willing and able to take on new responsibilities? To take
on the hard work and hard choices? To commit?" And then I responded, "I continue to reflect on these questions and where I might feel
called to serve. I think that some of us need to step up to the plate." As I look around almost three years later, of the 20 or so organizations I can think of that changed leaders, all of them found adequate applicants. About a quarter of them chose people younger than 50, and almost half chose women. I've met most of them and I have confidence that they are willing to take on hard work and move in new and vibrant directions. But I can tell you that none of those people feels adequate to fill Rufus Jones's shoes.
wrote something like 57 books and gave thousands of speeches all over
the world. [Including these two that I love: The Vital Cell, 1941, and What Will Get Us Ready? 1944]
I can barely write a blogpost once a month. But before I get too caught
up in comparing myself to him, I have to remind myself that he had a
wife, and a housekeeper, and a driver, and probably a series of typists
to help him out. He wasn't cleaning his own bathroom. He probably never
changed a diaper. Times have changed and there are limits to how much he can serve as a role
model for me
Still, this brings me to considering how I am stepping up to the plate in my world. If you haven't heard one of Sheryl Sandberg's talks or read her book, you can go to her new website, www.LeanIn.org. She is encouraging women to take professional risks, to push for a seat at the table at work and for equality at home, to not give up on their careers just because it's so damn hard when your kids are little. It's controversial, as important conversations are. For me, it helps to articulate it that I have leaned in hard this last couple of years. And I have been supported at home, and in my meetings, and by many Friends. But is it enough? Am I doing enough? Or doing it well enough?
I like to think that I am not aiming to be as famous or influential as Rufus Jones, but I am working on being as faithful to the calling I have, to live up to the Light that I have been given. Leaning in hard can still look undramatic and unheroic. I suspect that Rufus Jones did aim to be dramatic and heroic and that's one of the things that annoyed people. How is that different from singers giving their heart and soul to get to me and you?
Is it wrong to have ambition to be faithful on a large scale?
Well, at meeting on Sunday, I asked God that question. (One of the things I forever appreciate about unprogrammed Quaker meetings is the opportunity to bring my inarticulate mess to God in prayer. I don't have it all figured out, and that's okay. I can just hold my swirling questions in the Light. And sometimes there's an answer. Not a booming voice from beyond the ceiling, but a quiet knowing of something new.) And the answer went like this, "So what are you doing for those who will come after you?" Huh? I'm the one who is looking for role models, and instead I'm being asked to be one. Not by any actual younger people, mind you, just by God. Darn. Now what?
Rufus Jones, for all his foibles, was strongly committed to encouraging and supporting younger generations, and they loved him for it. The two speeches I cited above were both given to Young Adult Friends, at their invitation, when he was about 80 years old. Perhaps I can aspire to be like him in this regard and let go of the temptation to try to be like him in other ways.
I can still give my heart and soul for the Religious Society of Friends. Thy will, Lord, not mine.