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.

My Photo
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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

NEYM Part 6 – In which I mention briefly what I have ommitted and we take our leave of each other.

I have not reported on all that occurred during this years sessions of New England Yearly Meeting. There is, of course, no way that one person could do that anyway. There are two major omissions that I would like to acknowledge. The first was a performance on Tuesday evening of a contemporary oratorio, The Fire and the Hammer. This was the first performance of this work in North America. I found the performance very moving. The words are taken in large part from Fox's Journal and Letters, as well as some letters by Margaret Fell. The piece covers the time from Fox's youth to his vision of a great people to be gathered. I got a sense of how difficult a period this was for George Fox and the strength he must have possessed to do what he did while the Quaker movement was just beginning to take shape. I was also impressed by how well the chorus and the soloists came together since they had less than a week to rehearse together before their performance.

The second was the Bible Half Hours by Maggie Edmundson, pastor of Winthrop Center Friends Church, in Maine. The presentations were informative, entertaining and nourishing. She explored Scriptures and found in it the voice of the Earth, and the voice of God calling us to live in unity with the earth. I am not going to try to provide a digest of the talks. I understand that recordings of the talks have been made and will be available from the Yearly Meeting office. I encourage Friends who are interested to take advantage of the recordings.

When we met on Thursday morning, we had completed most of our business. We approved our epistle. We heard reports from the visitors to the various youth and young adult yearly meetings. We heard the report on sessions and our numbers. The youths joined us and read their epistles to us. Then we adjourned and had lunch and took our leave of each other.

During sessions, and as I reflect on the experience afterwards, Psalm 133 keeps coming back to me.

1 How good and pleasant it is
   when God’s people live together in unity!
 2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
   running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
   down on the collar of his robe.
3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
   were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
   even life forevermore. 

This was the theme for NEYM Sessions some years ago, but it is so fitting. The image of the oil on the head is the annointing of Aaron to be priest. The unity and love we experienced at these sessions felt like an annointing. It showed us what is possible and why it is important to keep working the difficult issues and to pray about them. It showed us that we can stay in the place of brokenness and not fear it, because healing will come. It showed us that we can trust in the Lord because the Lord can work miracles. This blessing and annointing that we received is not just a reward for work already done. It is a preparation and a commission for the work we have yet to do.


Will T

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NEYM Part 5 - In which we work together in the Light.

The first significant issue that came forward on Wednesday morning was the preliminary approval to the chapter of Faith and Practice on Corporate Discernment.  The sticking point was the recommendation that if a Friend stands aside from a decision of the meeting, that person's name should not be recorded in the minutes. Some friends were concerned that this would make the work of future historians more difficult. Christopher McCandless, a former clerk of NEYM, shared with us that he felt that the biggest mistake that he made while he was clerk, was in recording the names of people who were standing aside from the decisions made about our relationship with FUM. Once he did that, he had some 20 people wanting to be recorded, and he doubted that any future historian would be able to figure out all of their different motivations. Another friend spoke about another elephant in the room, and in fact it might be the mother of all the other elephants, and that is pride. It appears that some people want to be recorded as standing aside so that they can be shown later to have been on the right side of history. Such an attitude is not conducive to the kind of unity that we seek. The chapter was approved with one friend standing aside because he could not be in unity with the section on standing aside.

I wish that I had participated in such a discussion and discernment about our business practice before I had attended the FUM General Board Meeting in Kenya 5 years ago. It is too easy for us to see the mechanisms of Quaker process as a quaint variation of Robert's Rules of Order and think of them as techniques for political advantage. We do not sufficiently appreciate that the Quaker practice of business is radically different than the world's. From time to time we may get business done, but the deeper purpose is to build up our discernment, faithfulness and unity as a body.

The other major issue on Wednesday morning was our relationship with FUM. Two years ago the Yearly Meeting had agreed to a mechanism that if a meeting minuted that it wanted to withhold funds from FUM that they could contact the treasurer, reduce their contribution to the Yearly Meeting by that amount and that amount would be deducted from the contribution that NEYM sends to FUM. But because there are Friends in New England that want to hold FUM harmless, there was also a fund set up to receive contributions from Friends specifically to replace these withheld funds. As a result, Friends who were concerned that they not be supporting an organization that they felt was discriminatory could contribute to their monthly meetings and through them the Yearly Meeting without violating their conscience. But Friends who felt that it was important that NEYM continue to support FUM fully could contribute additional amounts with love and respect for the consciences of these other Friends. It was clearly not a long term solution but it was being recommended that this be extended for another two years.

The clerk of Wellesley Meeting spoke about how the discussion in their meeting had been very painful and that several years ago they had brought that pain to the Yearly Meeting. She wished that some of those same people could have been here this year. The current mechanism had been important in allowing discussion and discernment to continue while removing the pressure that had surrounded the issue of contributions. Other speakers noted that it takes time for Monthly Meetings to find out about the decisions of the Yearly Meeting and then to proceed based on that. As a result, a number of meetings are only beginning to consider the issues raised.

I spoke that, while it was significant that the FUM General Board had acknowledged that it was unable to find unity on the sexual ethics portion of the FUM Personnel Policy, and that while we had already seen evidence of God to perform miracles in a body, it was highly unlikely that FUM was going to change its Personnel Policy in the next two years. Part of the work that we need to do is to deal with the whole issue of how do we balance the call of individual conscience with what we as a body are willing to do. This is work that we need to do primarily in our own monthly meetings. Delay will not make the problem go away. Another friend noted that we also have to deal with the homophobia and heterosexism in our own meetings.

The proposal was approved. The sense of unity was not as strong as the day before, but I think that is because we still have a lot of work to do. What we had was the unity of committing to continue difficult work together, rather than the joyful unity that comes when the labor is completed. But it was still a gathered and favored meeting. Our sessions this year were truly blessed.

Blessings to all,

Will T

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 22, 2011

NEYM Part 4 – In which two miracles occur.

On Tuesday morning, the yearly meeting budget came up for approval. The treasurer and the Finance Committee made their presentation. After a number of difficult years, their main news was that we were in the black for the first time in several years. There may have been a clarifying question or two but then the budget was approved with no further discussion. Elapsed time, about 10 minutes. To me, this certainly qualifies as a miracle.

The other major item on our agenda that morning was a proposal for changing the name of the Christian Education committee to the Quaker Youth Education Committee. This change was being proposed because the committee found that it was doing a lot more than helping with First-Day Schools and they wanted their name to reflect that. Their new purpose statement starts:

The goal of the Quaker Youth Education Committee is to help the Yearly Meeting's children and youth: build personal foundations of Quaker history, practice, and belief, Christan education, and comparative religion; find effective ways to witness to their beliefs in the world; and become spiritually resilient in a complex and changing society.

As understandable as this desire was, it was also clear that this change could become a flash point for all of the tensions in the Yearly Meeting between Christian and non-Christian Friends. What happened was truly remarkable and another miracle. The first speaker was a well-known Christian and spoke about her first reaction to this proposal was fear that this was going to be a first step in turning Quakerism into a non-Christian religion. But she was not going to be governed by her fear. She trusted in the good faith of the committee and the care that it had taken already. A friend who has often had reservations about Christian language spoke about how much she valued hearing the Christians in the yearly meeting. Another well-known Christian Friend spoke about how important it was to her that she was accepted into membership when she was not a Christian. There was a palpable sense of unity in the room. The change was approved. There was a bit of difficulty in preparing the minute but it was resolved when we finally realized that the discomfort was because the proposed minute did not go far enough in recognizing the value the body was putting on the Christian voices in the Yearly Meeting.


Will T

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

NEYM Part 3 - In Which We Listen Deeply and Are Broken Open

Our Monday morning session was given over to listening deeply. This session arose from a concern raised by Hannah Zwirner, a young adult Friend who has grown up in New England Yearly Meeting. As she has said:

This program came out of my frustration with the way the Yearly meeting collectively has talked in the last few years about our relationship with FUM. Prior meetings about FUM on the YM floor have left me very un-centered, and I don't think that there has been enough deep listening to each other's experiences. Instead, I think our meetings have involved many quick reactions to others' statements without first holding those messages in our hearts. It is my feeling that many people feel that the wider community has not fully or properly received their stories and the truths that they live. I think that there are a lot of people who simply feel unready to act until they have been heard.

The form the session took was to have a panel of four people share their experiences while asking the larger community to sit deeply with them. The people were chosen to have a diversity of experience but not to be representative of the entire yearly meeting. After the last speaker finished we were asked to go into worship with the discipline that we were to listen and let the messages to sink in and we were to have no vocal ministry.

The first person to speak was Eden Grace. She introduced herself simply as being from Beacon Hill Friends Meeting but she is also FUM Field Staff at the FUM Africa office in Kisumu, Kenya and has also served as a representative to the World Council of Churches where she taught them how to use the Quaker decision making process. She spoke how she identifies as an Evangelical Christian. She also spoke of the healing value of confession. Then for the rest of her time, she confessed to the sins of Christianity.
In the name of me and my people, I confess that we have been proud and arrogant....
In the name of me and my people, I confess that we have excluded people and their gifts because they are not like us.....
In the name of me and my people I confess that we have valued power above the love of neighbor...
In the name of me and my people I confess....
The list just kept going on and on and by the time she finished, she was crying, other panelists were crying, I was crying, and many people in the body were crying. It was an incredibly powerful moment. I think it broke open the entire body.

In the silence that followed her talk, someone in the body started to sing. The microphone spacers (Those people appointed by Ministry and Counsel to carry portable microphones to people wishing to address the body.) quickly rose and indicated with hand gestures to quiet down and stop. A number of the people on the stage who were holding the body in prayer also rose at this time, as did some people in the body. The singing quickly subsided. This was another indication of the increased discipline of the body and our increased ability to sit in a difficult place and stay there.

Brian Drayton spoke about Spirit and community. What are we about as the Society of Friends? At the most basic level, we are called to holiness. We are to live our lives at the disposal of the divine life whose being is both truth and love. Entering a spiritual community means joining your spiritual life to the other members of the community. Our religious society and the larger Quaker institutions we have created are only tools created to meet certain needs. Quoting Erasmus, “I must stay with this church until I find a better one, and the church must put up with me until I am a better person.” Is our worship bringing us to a place where our impurities are named and burned away, or certainties transformed, and everything reassembled by the action of love? If so we are renewed little by little. If not, we have not come to true worship. We have more work to do.

Anne- Marie Witzburg spoke about how she was raised a Quaker and taught that God has no hands but ours. She has tried to do the work she is called to do and to live her values. At age 4 she learned that all life is sacred so since then she has been a vegetarian because animals are sacred too. She grew up boycotting grapes in solidarity with the United Farm Workers and boycotting Coca-Cola because of their business in South Africa. She grew up thinking that all Quakers loved everyone because that was what Jesus would do. It was a shock to her and to her family to discover that there were Quaker organizations with homophobic personnel policies. It was a shock to realize that she and her sister were not equal in the eyes of all Friends because one was partnered with a man and the other a woman.
She feels the spiritual grounding of people working with FUM and the FUM missions and the spiritual grounding of people resisting membership in that organization. If we are all truly listening to our leadings and to what we must do, then we are all doing the right thing. She worries about where the line is between loving others who are at different points in their journeys and betraying her own values. She is concerned about belonging to a yearly meeting that rejects membership in racist organizations but within which, racism is still present. She is concerned that NEYM insists on membership in a homophobic organization but denies that homophobia exists among us still. She worries about questioning her own still small voice instead of listening fully and following faithfully what she know to be true and right. She worries about homophobia and internalized homophobia and questions of white privilege and guilt and how those struggles get in the way of listening to the Light and her leadings. And she wonders if other people have those struggles as well.

Lisa Graustein presented a spectrum of acceptance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer people. There is homophobia, there is heterosexism, which might accept gay men and lesbians but which considers heterosexual orientation as normative, there is tolerance, there is being welcoming and affirming, and there is being an ally. She shared about the stories she heard from gay men, lesbian women and their families when she was traveling in Kenya for the FUM Triennial in 2002. She also recounted her experiences with homophobia and heterosexism within New England Yearly Meeting.

The meeting ended with about 25 minutes of deep and silent worship.

I spoke with a number of people afterwards and many of them talked about how powerful the experience was. The relationship if NEYM with FUM was on our agenda for later in the week and for the first time I found myself looking forward to that session with anticipation and not apprehension. It seemed to me that something had changed and I was looking forward to seeing how it would play out. 

Clearly, God was at work.


Will T

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

NEYM Sessions - Part 2 In which our first miracle occurs

The tradition of New England Yearly Meeting is to have intergenerational worship on Sunday morning, perhaps a speaker, and a time of open worship. The intergenerational worship is usually led by one of the  groups within the Yearly Meeting or a particular monthly meeting and it is often programmed in some way or another. This year the intergenerational worship was led by the Young Friends (High School age Friends). They introduced us to what they referred to as “loud worship.” They projected a power point slide with a query on it. They then displayed in a somewhat random order, the names of months. When the month of your birthday was called, you were to stand and give your response to the query. You were to totally ignore the usual etiquette of speaking in meeting. You should speak whether or not you felt moved, you should rise and speak, even if someone else was already speaking, and so on. For the second query, the selection was by day of the month when your birthday was. The result was a cacophony of voices, although it was interesting how many messages you could actually hear. Friends followed directions about as well as they usually do, with several speaking, even when the prompt was for “Nobody.” During the the second query, that prompt got someone to recite the first lines of the Emily Dickinson poem, “I'm Nobody.”  Someone else picked it up and said a few more lines and we ended up with an antiphonal recitation of the entire poem.

Following this we had a message delivered by Dikson Santiesteban pastor of Puerto Padre Friends Church, Cuba Yearly Meeting. He spoke about how the Cuban people have been able to survive through their difficulties and his answer was “Solidarity.” He described how, during Hurricane Ike, many people from the town crowded into the church in Delicias for shelter, and how everyone, even the Communist Party members, prayed. He called for solidarity among Friends.

The open worship that followed this message was the first miracle of the week. It was the most disciplined Sunday morning Meeting for Worship I have experienced at NEYM sessions. The messages were well spaced, there were not large numbers of people standing at once to get the microphone to give a message, and none of the messages were markedly inappropriate. I don't know if it was because we have had more experience after last year's Meetings to Hear God's Call, if it was because everyone had already had a chance to talk, or if it was the counter example of having just experienced the loud worship, but it felt like a miracle.

During worship one person spoke about how she visited Friends in Cuba for the first time when the Soviet Union had just collapsed the the Russian subsidies to Cuba had stopped. People were very thin, and she spoke how she saw people give away their last half cup of rice, because someone else needed it more. She felt herself convicted by this because she was so often reluctant to give, even from her surplus. Another Friend spoke about the need to listen carefully to each other. What was exceptional was that it came through a person who is very opinionated and often outspoken. The power of the message came from God speaking through an unexpected voice.

The official theme of this year's sessions was 350 Years of New England Friends: Called to Heal a Broken Earth. The number 350 was doubly significant. Not only was it the number of years the Yearly Meeting has met. It is also the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air that is sustainable for life as we used to know it on this planet. After lunch, Steve Chase from Putney, Vt., Meeting gave a plenary presentation on peak oil, climate change and the transition movement.  This topic could have left us immobilized with despair and frustration but instead left us with a sense that we were not powerless and alone in the face of the changes that we are already encountering.

When we regathered for business in the evening we approved, through the unity agenda, receiving most of the committee and staff reports that had been published in the advance documents, as well as most of our housekeeping minutes. This freed up time so that we could give greater attention to a few, more major subjects. The Faith and Practice Revision Committee read to us much of their proposed chapter on Corporate Discernment. They solicited comments then and through the week and would bring the chapter back later for preliminary approval. I will go into more detail about the discussion in a later post. I will just say that I think it may have helped us during our later meetings to have heard much of this material read to us and to be thinking about how we do business.

The first full day and we were beginning to see God moving amongst us.


Will T

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

NEYM Sessions -- Part 1 In which it appears that we have picked up right where we left off

New England Yearly Meeting Sessions officially began Saturday evening August 6. But because of the event on Friday at the Great Meeting House, many people had actually arrived on Friday evening. Some of these people had committee meetings to attend, but I was pretty free. I used the morning to take a badly needed nap. I generally try to come to Yearly Meeting rested because it can be physically taxing. Not that sitting most of the day is so difficult, but because I tend to stay up late socializing and then have to get up early for breakfast. It is easy for the 6 days to become an exercise in sleep deprivation.

This year I was physically tired, but emotionally refreshed when I got to sessions. During the last two weeks of July, my wife and I went to Hawaii in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary. We had a totally excellent time and we ended with 3 days of doing little but lying on the beach in Maui and swimming and snorkeling. By the end we were totally rested and refreshed.

Then we had a 12 hour overnight plane flight back to Boston. And as tiring as that was, we had trouble sleeping because of the 6 hour time difference. I went back to work for four days. I had some deadlines to meet that would occur while I was at NEYM. So I was working late and not sleeping well. At least I had worked through the jet lag by the time sessions started.

Because of the early start, Saturday was not a rush of packing up the car and getting to sessions to unpack. It also meant that we had two additional meals to visit with people over. As a result I felt a greater sense of relaxation and spaciousness when we gathered on Saturday night. As usual, there was not much actual business to be conducted. It was mostly the usual introductions and our traditional calling the roll of meetings and general description of the week ahead. But when the time came to approve the minutes there was an objection raised to the phrase that something was “our cross to bear.” because of the Christian overtones of that phrase. This seemed to pick up right where we left off from our approval of the Minute of Sending Forth  at last sessions where some Friends had difficulty with the explicit Christian language. The minute was finally approved with only minor changes, if I recall correctly, to make it clearer that this was reporting on what someone said and was not meant to speak for the entire Yearly Meeting. There had been considerable discussion over the intervening year about language and inclusivity and exclusivity but it seemed we were right back in the middle of it with our divisions staring us in the face.

But God had other plans


Will T.

Labels: ,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NEYM Sessions: Prologue, The Great Meeting House

Last year at sessions we began our celebration of New England Yearly Meetings 350'th year with a Jubilee in which we set aside most of our business and spent much of our time together in Meetings to Hear God's Call. This year, to cap off the year, we had a gathering at the Great Meeting House in Newport, RI the day before the official start of sessions.

The Great Meeting House was built in 1699 and hosted the sessions or New England Yearly Meeting from then until 1905 except for a few years during the American Revolutionary War when the British blockade prevented people from the mainland reaching Newport. It is a large building and when it was used for sessions sat several thousand people. The major beams visible overhead in the original section are at least 2 feet square and run the full width of the building and are each cut from a single tree. There are boards on the interior walls that are three feet wide. We just do not have trees like that anymore. At the time the building was built, the forest of similar trees extended from the east coast to beyond the Mississippi River.

The first part of the afternoon was spent in doing a number of service projects at the Martin Luther King Community Center, next door. At one time the Community Center was housed in the Great Meeting House. Friends gathered litter from the grounds, painted exterior trim, and helped move shelves and organize materials in the center.

We then held a silent Peace Vigil on the front corner of the grounds. It was a hot day but just as the vigil started a breeze came up and a number of people reported that they felt a sense of blessing when that happened. ( I was still cleaning paint brushes and re-hydrating myself at the start of the vigil.) There was steady traffic through the intersection where we stood and many passers-by were supportive, waving the peace sign, honking or waving. One man called out from a passing car, “Love your oatmeal.”

The original plan had been for people to bring their own dinners and perhaps something to share but that seemed to morph into an impromptu potluck. Inside the Meeting House was an historical exhibit that highlighted some of the history of Friends in New England. After dinner, we heard a brief talk on the history of the building. There was a musical presentation with a chorus of Friends presenting a few numbers from “The Fire and the Hammer” which was going to be presented in full later on during the Yearly Meeting Sessions. We then had a meeting for worship. I was tired from a very busy week with insufficient sleep. I had worked outside in the sun most of the afternoon, had just eaten, and the meeting house was warm. I found myself nodding off and wondering how many of my forbears had also dozed in these rooms. I take some comfort from reading in Elias Hick's Journal of times when he reports that he was beset by a “drowsy sleepy spirit” during the forepart of meeting. Of course, most of the time, he goes on to say that he overcame that and was later opened to give testimony in the latter portion of the meeting. Such was not my case that evening. Nevertheless, it was a favored meeting.

It was reported at the end of the evening that there were about 250 people in attendance, far in excess of the 140 or so who had registered in advance. I found the day to be very satisfying. It seems that it might be a generally useful idea to seek ways to incorporate acts of concrete service into our times together. It not only helps us break up our sometimes intense focus on the internal workings of the Society of Friends, but it is also a gentle form of outreach and letting the world know that Friends are not just an historical curiosity or makers of oatmeal.

More to come.


Will T

Labels: , ,