Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Authentic speech and witness

I am back from New England Yearly Meeting. I have not been blogging recently because I was preparing for the workshop that I helped to lead. We had a catchy title that I forget but the general theme was applying the Friends Peace Testimony to the relationship of NEYM and FUM. And then I was at Yearly Meeting.

I am not going to try to give a full report on what happened at Yearly Meeting. I am not a journalist. Instead I will make a series of posts about little tidbits that I heard or read that caused a reaction in me, or little bits of insight that I got during the five days.

Lloyd Lee Wilson gave the keynote address. It was a very dense talk. It wasn't hard to understand but it was so filled with good stuff that if you stopped to think about something he said, two or three other good things went whizzing by. I hope that it will be released in pamphlet form so that I can read it and let the words sink in and study them. My reaction at the end was very much, “This Friend speaks my mind.” As important as the words was the deep place that he took us to. He got us off to a good start and we were able to stay in a deep and centered place for much of the week. This was not just his doing but the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people since last year when our Sunday meeting for worship was so uncentered and frothy that our Young Friends (the High School group) sent the adults a minute from their business meeting eldering us for how poorly we conducted worship.

At the very beginning of his talk, Lloyd Lee said something like this, “It is not authentic to speak of something when it is clear that I do not posses it in my own life.” What follows are my reaction to that

This really is the crux of our spiritual condition. This is what the testimonies are supposed to be. A way of living our lives that give testimony to our beliefs. At our best our testimonies are not our words but our actions. Our testimony on honesty is not just in our refusal to swear oaths, it is in Thomas Ellwood walking with a group of other Friends across Bristol from the overcrowded prison in which they were being held to another prison without guard or escort because that was what they said they would do.

Our peace testimony is embodied in people like Tom Fox. For most of us, at least for myself, my life is not much of a testimony. The extent of it is that I have not applied for jobs with defense contractors. The last time my company was acquired, I refused to sign a paper saying I would apply for a security clearance if it was needed. But mostly my life looks a lot like the lives of the non-Friends around me.

What does it mean to live an authentic Quaker and Christian life in a society that is founded and defended by violence and in an economy whose underlying principle is greed? Do we have an alternative to offer to an American Dream defined only in terms of material wealth? These are difficult questions because the answers may require changes in the way we live. This is hard work and it may be dangerous work. It is certainly not comfortable work. But it is work we need to be doing.



Blogger Chris M. said...


The last segment of your post expresses precisely how I feel following a similarly rich Pacific Yearly Meeting: How are we to respond to the challenge of being Quakers in this (US) culture? Are we up to the task?

Thanks for writing this and helping me put into words some of my own thoughts.

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

August 14, 2006 12:30 AM  
Anonymous Zach said...

Will, I think you're right, that this is the crux (or at least a very big part) of our spiritual condition. How much of our talk -- and even actions -- regarding the 'testimonies' comes more from our heads or our socialization (I am a Quaker and this is a Quaker norm), and how much from the Root?

I have often thought this when I read young (or perhaps I am only assuming they are young) Quaker posting in LiveJournal Quakers, under concern about swearing in court, or using the plain "thee" in a Romance language ("tu") instead of the deferential "you" ("vous" or "Usted"). But if we are questioning whether we ought to do these things, isn't that a sign that we are not in the same spiritual place as those early Friends (for better or worse)? I don't think I could authentically refuse to swear in court if I was asked -- because I do in all honesty have an unplain double standard for truth. I don't think I could refuse to address an elder as "vous" because I am an unplain (and 'un-Yeshuan') "respecter of persons."

To use the old scientific analogy, perhaps we are complacent because we have the accumulated wisdom of so many giants who have gone before us that most of us, myself included, have absorbed our textbooks but not taken on the scientific mindset -- absorbed the testimonies but not been transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Which is a gigantic issue, but I think the main part of it is our spiritual practices. And one part of our spiritual practices is the simple amount of it. From what I read, early Friends met much more than 60 minutes a week, and I think it's not unreasonable to ask whether this lighter spiritual discipline on our part has resulted in a less weighty spirituality.

Which was why I was very interested in your workshop a few years back at NEYM on extendend worship (though I had YAF duties that prevented me from coming I think). What were your thoughts after doing that?

August 14, 2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I have found that sometimes it is the process of taking a stand on something that helps make it real. A number of years ago I was called for jury duty and was selected for a jury. I passed word to the judge through the court officer (bailif) that I couldnt' take an oath and I ended up in a conference with the judge and lawyers. The judge asked if I could affirm and I said that I could. The lawyers had no problem and I was seated. Having been through that exercise I found myself being much more careful about what I said and how I conducted myself.

We don't have to wait until we have it all together before we can make a stand. Making the outward witness also helps the inward growth. It is part of acting on the Light that you have and more will be given to you.

As for the extended worship at sessions I learned a number of things. First of all, mid-afternoon at Yearly Meeting where everyone is a little sleep deprived is not the best time for gathering for an extended period of silence. It is too conducive to a nap. Secondly, if you are going to try such an exercise, have it in a room where you cannot hear every word of the workshop next door.

I am still seeking ways to get more worship at sessions. The Meeting for Yearning they had this year for people to bring their grief and pain over the war and their yearning for peace and whatever else (there was actually a pretty eloquent list which I don't remember.) was a very deep worship. It was certainly the deepest worship I experienced. We ended up not shaking hands at the end but asking people to carry the worship with them through their activities in the afternoon.


August 14, 2006 10:24 PM  
Blogger Paul L said...

One small comment for Zach --

You said: "I don't think I could authentically refuse to swear in court if I was asked -- because I do in all honesty have an unplain double standard for truth."

There's more to the testimony against oaths than simply having a single standard for truth (though that is a large part of it); it has to do with what an oath really is.

An oath -- as distinct from a simple affirmation -- carries with it an explicit appeal or challenge to God to be a witness to a promise to do something (e.g., tell the truth) accompanied with a sanctioning curse if the promise is not kept: May God strike me dead . . . . Cross my heart and hope to die. It's this appeal to the sanctioning curse that is offensive to Quakers and Christians.

Thus, an oath is qualitatively different kind of statement than a simple affirmation that one is telling the truth. One is naturally more careful about describing facts observed or making promises when it matters -- in court, for example, or when getting married -- than in a casual friendly conversation where scrupulous exactitude isn't necessary or appropriate. ("What color's that horse, Friend?" "This side is brown.")

(There is also the problem of the imprudent, casual oath that we are especially to avoid. Bible is also full of examples where men made unwise oaths -- e.g., Matt. 14: "On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias [Herod's sister-in-law] danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked" which turned out to be John the Baptist's head on a platter. "The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother.

When Jesus said "Swear not at all and let your aye be aye and nay nay" (which formed the sole basis for the Friends' testimony against oaths, as far as I can tell) he was referring to the casual appropriation of God's name as a witness enforced by divine sanctions -- especially when it doesn't matter ("I swear to God that fish was three feet long") -- not that you can't affirm that a statement of fact is true when it does matter.

So the fact that you might not be as careful with your facts in everyday life doesn't mean that it's hypocritical to refuse to swear. It's what makes an affirmation necessary, perhaps, but an affirmation is not an oath.

None of which undermines your main point which is that our testimonies are to be lived, not said.

August 15, 2006 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Zach said...

Thanks, Paul :)

August 15, 2006 6:26 PM  

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