Only God Can Make a Tree?

December 11, 2014

“Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree,” wrote poet Joyce Kilmer in 1947 in one of most-often quoted lines of poetry in the English language.

TOnly God Can Make a Treehere certainly are poets that think of God as writing the poems for which they are conduits, but most of us think that Kilmer is right that ‘only God can make a tree.’

And then today I found myself at First Parish Church in Brunswick (a UCC Church) making a tree for the Christmas season. I suppose we could just bring a recently cut tree into the church, but it would be quite a job to bring in a whole, natural tree as large as the one we build each year, piece by piece, bough by bough, in the sanctuary.

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Cow Island in November

November 21, 2014

Cow Island in November

 

This past Monday I spent a few hours on Cow Island, a 58 acre uninhabited island in the Androscoggin just downstream from our house. I was there on a monitoring visit for the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, which now owns the island. (I’m a member of the Land Trust’s Board of Directors.) We have to visit each of our properties at least once a year to see that the terms of their preservation are being respected and to see if there are any non-man-made changes taking place.

It’s called Cow Island because farmers used to drive cows across the river onto the island at low tide and leave them there to graze. There’s a meadow at the center of the island. There are also towering silver maples and stands of birch trees.  Cow Island is now being invaded by honeysuckle and Japanese knotwood. They make the walking difficult. Still, it is a beautiful island, fairly flat and often flooded in parts. Several channels allow the river to cut into the island.

 

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A Community Hymn Sing With the Kotzschmar Organ

November 17, 2014

Kotzschmar OrganAn unusual treat yesterday: we participated in a community hymn festival in Portland at Merrill Auditorium. Participating were about 15 church choirs, an audience that filled the lower two tiers of Merrill and, of course, Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ.

The choir at First Parish Church (Brunswick) — Ellen’s choir — was one of the participants. Of course: Ray Cornils, its director, is also the municipal organist for Portland. That is, he’s the person who most frequently plays the Kotzschmar. It’s a magnificent organ, first installed in 1912 when it was the second largest organ in the world, and most recently renovated in 2012. (“Today the Kotzschmar boasts 102 ranks, 6,862 pipes in eight divisions: Swell, Great, Solo, Orchestral, Antiphonal, Echo, Pedal and Percussion.”)

Together we sand hymns old and new, gospel and patriotic, evangelic and progressive, familiar and not so familiar. And not just Christian: the cantor of Beth Israel in Bath led us in Yigdal (God of Abraham Praise) and then in Shalom Chaverim as a round.

Local choir leaders, members of the Portland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, took turns at the Kotschmar. The Salvation Army New York Staff Band also played.

Ray Cornils explained that back when the Kotzschmar was new, the municipal organist regularly gathered people in the city auditorium for a hymn sing on the proposition that people who sing together will be transformed.  It is an amazing experience to sing with so many others.

A special treat for all of us was hearing Mark Thallander, a marvellous organist, play a Toccata on Hymn to Joy that he had arranged. It was a striking rendition playing most of the melody on the pedals rather than the keyboards. Only after he stopped did I realize he plays now with only one arm.

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A Few Words on Quakers and Equality

November 14, 2014

[My wife’s book club has been reading The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd’s fictionalized biography of of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), who were leaders in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Since Sarah and Nina were Quakers, Ellen asked me to give the group a little background on Friends and equality. This is what I wrote.]

Whenever we think of human equality as an ideal towards which we struggle, we should remember how recent an ideal this is. Prior to about 1600, no one believed in the equality of human beings. (That’s scarcely too strong.) Everyone believed that there were significant differences among people that made them unequal—and should make them unequal. Some of those differences ran along lines of race and gender. Some ran along the lines of inherited status. Any proper organization of society or politics or religion, it was believed, should respect those rightful inequalities.

Quakers were among the first to see things differently. There were other groups who also came to proclaim ideas of equality: Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972) is the best history of the emergence of these radical ideas.

What we know as Quakerism began about 1652 when George Fox, an itinerant preacher and son of a weaver had an epiphany. He had been seeking answers to religious questions and had found none in established churches or ministers. On Pendle Hill he heard a voice that said “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who has come to teach his people himself.” As Fox and others understood that leading, God spoke to us in the present, and would speak to all of us directly: all of us, not just some of us. We had only to still ourselves and listen. From this followed the practice of gathering in worship in stillness, waiting for the Spirit to move one to speak. From this followed also the idea that all were called to ministry.

From its beginnings, women assumed leadership roles among Friends, as they came to call themselves. (“Quaker” was a mocking term, quickly adopted by Friends.) Of course this was controversial. In 1666, Margaret Fell, the most prominent of the earliest Quaker women, wrote Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed by the Scriptures to extoll women taking roles generally taken only by men. In Quakerism’s first century, both in Britain and in the colonies, women are as likely as men to be recorded as ministers (recognized for their gifts of ministry).

Friends were early activists with regard to slavery. In the late 1650s, Fox wrote a letter of caution to other Quakers about slave-holding. The 1688 Germantown (Pa.) Quaker Petition Against Slavery was the first protest against African-American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies. By the early 18th century, Quaker Yearly Meetings (regional organizations) were instructing their members not to hold slaves. and their pronouncements grow increasingly forceful over the next several decades. John Woolman published his influential Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes in 1754, but several Friends had published anti-slavery tracts well before. When the American colonies gained independence, Quakers petitioned the new federal government to forbid slavery.

As an Abolitionist Movement took shape, Quakers were prominent members, and this included women as well as men. In the 1830s, Quaker women including Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters, as well as many others, were involved (though not always recognized as members) in the formation of anti-slavery societies

When the first Women’s Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls in 1848, Quaker women were prominent in the effort including Lucretia Mott, her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock and Jane Hunt. (Wright had been disowned as a Friend for marrying a non-Friend.) They developed their organizing skills in the fight for abolition.

Slavery and the proper role of women were controversial issues within the Society of Friends through the 18th and 19th centuries. Friends were not of one mind: both issues divided monthly and yearly meetings. But abolition of slavery and full equality for women were issues that arose early among Friends and ones about which Friends came to substantial unity well before other religious denominations.

Today, Friends talk about a Testimony of Equality just as they also talk about a Peace Testimony, but formulating ‘Testimonies’ to capture Friends’ beliefs about how we should act in the world is a 20th century approach. Today Friends continue to struggle with equality. The central issues of concern today are rights of indigenous peoples, rights of immigrants, the proper treatment of those convicted of wrong-doing, and equality around LGBTQ matters.   Again, Friends are not of one mind on these questions, but there are Friends in leadership in struggles around all of these.

For more on the relation of women in the abolition and women’s rights movements, see Christopher Densmore, Radical Quaker Women and the Early Women’s Rights Movement.

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Abu Dhabi

November 11, 2014

IMG_2067Looks like a river, doesn’t it?  It’s really a channel of the Persian Gulf in Abu Dhabi. The city is set on a series of islands, sand bars really, now stabilized. This view is the beach in front of the Beach Rotana hotel, where I stayed recently as a member of an external review team considering the re-licensure of New York University Abu Dhabi. It’s hard to believe that the ocean that’s close at hand to us here in Maine is the same ocean that laps around Abu Dhabi.

The building across the channel, by the way, is an outpost of the Cleveland Clinic, no doubt well subsidized by the Abu Dhabi government to maintain a first-class medical presence in the Emirate.

 

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For the Fruits of His Creation, Thanks Be to God

November 10, 2014

At First Parish Church yesterday we sang a hymn written by Fred Pratt Green in 1970 called “For the Fruits of His Creation.” The words are lovely; the final verse concludes with these:

 For the wonders that astound us,

For the truths that still confound us,

Most of all that love has found us,

Thanks be to God.

When I was growing up in a Presbyterian Church, I enjoyed singing hymns as much as I enjoyed any part of the regular worship service. Some hymns I liked more than others, of course, but I can’t say I paid much attention to the words and still less to who wrote the hymns.

As a Quaker drawn particularly to unprogrammed worship, hymns are less often a part of my worship. But some First Days I do go to a semi-programmed Friends Church in Durham, Maine, which always begins its worship with hymn singing, and once or twice a month Robbie and I go with my wife, Ellen, to First Parish, the UCC Church in Brunswick, where she sings in the choir. On these occasions I often find myself  drawn to the hymns we sing.

Some, like Fred Pratt Green’s, simply speak to me. I find passages in the hymns that are helpful to me in prayer, as in this case: “For the wonders that astound us, For the truths that still confound us, Most of all that love has found us, Thanks be to God.” Those words capture something of what I want to say when I pray.

So thanks to Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), a British Methodist Minister who wrote a number of hymns. “His hymns reflect his rejection of fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues,” his Wikipedia page tells me, making it all the clearer why I’m drawn to one of his hymns.

And thanks, too, to whoever wrote the marvelous melody to which this is set. As a kid I didn’t really understand the meter notes that accompanied a hymn but now I pay more attention. This one is 8.4.8.4.8.8.8.4, the numbers telling the beats in each line. Any words that fit that meter scheme can be sung to that melody

The particular melody we sang yesterday that fits this scheme is a beautiful old Welsh tune called Ar Hyd y Nos, which most of us know as the lullaby “All Through the Night,” the title being a a rough translation of the Welsh.

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Was Jesus Divine, If So, When and How?

November 2, 2014

“Some Quakers see ourselves as the authentic Christianity revived; others prefer to avoid thinking of us as Christians at all. To both sides of Quakerism’s Bible divide, it can seem as if those who call themselves Christians have always believed that Jesus was God and always defined his divinity in identical ways. Ehrman shows that simply is not so.”

That’s from a book review I wrote that is in the November issue of Friends Journal. The review is of How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, by Bart D. Ehrman (HarperOne, 2014).

The review is worth reading though you probably need to be a subscriber to gain access. The book is all the more worth reading. Ehrman shows there’s a good deal more complexity than it may seem to us today in whether and how Jesus was divine and when, if he were, divinity was conferred upon him: at he beginning of creation? at his birth? at his baptism? at his crucifixion? Serious people have argued all of these positions and still others have argued that Jesus never claimed special divinity for himself.

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