Membership Matters

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 11, 2022

It’s membership that’s on my mind this morning.  It’s on my mind because recently I’ve been asked a few times about how one becomes a member of a Quaker Meeting.  I’m a member of Ministry and Council, the committee of the Meeting that handles membership matters.  

Membership:  Is this a club you’re joining?  Is membership just a matter of affiliation? Like being a member of Rotary, not a member of the Lions or of the Odd Fellows.  Or like being a Phillies fan not a Mets or Yankees fan. 

I wasn’t born into membership.  I’m a convinced Friend, not a birthright Friend.   I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  I first went to Quaker Meeting in college, and attended fitfully until I made the decision to become a member in my mid-30s.  I remember with some embarrassment how long it took me to write a letter to the Meeting I joined – mostly because I didn’t really know what I believed.  Writing the letter made that all too clear.  They took me in anyway.  (It turned out it didn’t matter so much what I believed.  More on that later.)

I said I grew up in a Presbyterian Church.  My mother and my father had each grown up in a Northern Baptist Church.  They had full body immersion baptism as teenagers, not infant Baptism.  They met at a Northern Baptist college – Bates.  But as a family we went to a Presbyterian Church.  Why?  because it was nearby, because friends went there, and because there wasn’t a Northern Baptist Church easily to be found.  So was this Rotary not Lions, Phillies not Yankees.  I wondered as a kid.  Does it matter?  Why?

Early Quakers didn’t have membership.  They weren’t trying to create another distinct group of Christians with a slightly different set of beliefs.  They wanted to change the way everyone thought about being a Christian.  It was only after a few decades had passed and Quakers were being persecuted that they started having membership – so they could keep track of who needed assistance from other Quakers while they were in jail or didn’t have a job.  

Being a Quaker is an affiliation, I suppose.  This is my religious club; this is my religious clubhouse.  But this isn’t all it is, an affiliation.  A little over a decade ago I was a member of Quaker Meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting, and we were thrown out.  Not from Quakerism, but from the Yearly Meeting.  It was a rude and unsettling experience.  Why were we thrown out?  Because we had beliefs and practices that welcomed people whatever their sexual orientation.  We didn’t believe homosexuality was a sin.   So we got the heave-ho. 

Does being a Quaker mean having the correct beliefs?  Many Friends recoil from that thought, don’t we?  Part of being a Quaker is not having a creed, not having to ascribe to a formula of beliefs.  It’s something else, something more.  That ‘non-creedalism (no orthodox, insisted-on beliefs) is important to me, and it seems like Indiana Yearly Meeting lost its way on that. 

What does it mean to become a Quaker, a member of a Quaker Church or Quaker Meeting.  It’s not just an affiliation.  It’s more.  To talk about that something more I think we have to think about matters of discipline and commitment, too. 

Let’s start with discipline. I know that can be a worrying, even forbidding term, with its suggestive overtones of punishment. It becomes a warmer word, however, when we think of it as having to do with being a disciple – a student, a follower, a learner. Discipline is a way of discipleship. 

We each need a discipline, I think, because we each need a way to learn about God and what God expects of us. I’m wary of those who believe that knowing God is easy, as if it were something that just happens without our having to make much effort. Perhaps that is so for some people, but I am skeptical. For me, knowing God takes active effort. Making no effort is much more likely to lead me towards inattention and selfish behavior. 

So for me, I need a discipline: a learning strategy, a regular approach to knowing God. I am pretty sure we do not all need the same discipline.  For me, that is a clue to why it is not a bad thing that there are a variety of denominations. Think of each as embodying a distinctive religious discipline. “This is how we work together to know God.”   (Of course, for many denominations, there is also a creed, an orthodoxy.)

For me, waiting worship is a most helpful approach: gathering with others in stillness to seek God.  I know many who find the repetition of the Mass to be especially useful for drawing closer to God.  I know many people who value external sacraments, or who value ‘smells and bells’, or – a lot of other things.  A place to start on a spiritual journey is to know what spiritual discipline is best for you. 

From the British Quaker Ben Pink Dandelion I learned a new word:  orthopraxy.  Quakers, he says, don’t have an orthodoxy; they don’t have a creed.  But they do have a set of distinctive practices especially in worship.  Those distinctive practices, especially waiting worship, are the orthopraxy. 

Discipline opens the door to commitment, and to community   There may be some who can find and settle into a discipline all by themselves – without anyone else.  But that’s not for me, and I imagine would not be for most others.  If I am to settle into deep, waiting worship, I want to gather with others in doing that.  We do it together.  And so it is with most religious disciplines: their practice requires a community to practice them well.  So spiritual discipline requires community, and community requires commitment. 

In seeking such a community, I’m looking for a group of people who will not just be present once, but be present together over time, gathering and regathering.  I’m looking for a group of people who will make a commitment to being together for worship and seeking, and I’ll expect to make a commitment to them, too.  To become a member of a Quaker Meeting is to say, ‘you can count on me as we seek together for God’s will.’ 

How will that commitment be shown?  I can imagine a variety of ways: via regular financial contributions, via service on committees, via volunteering to help in other ways.  But most of all through regular count-upon-it attendance, week in and week out.  Taking part, showing up, being engaged.  In my Quaker meeting it does me good to see familiar faces each week, people I expect to be there and who expect me to be there, too.  We gather strength from one another. 

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website

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Great Meadow, Acadia

From Down East’s 2023 Acadia Calendar, photographed by John K. Putnam

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This I Know Experimentally

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 5, 2022

I want to begin this morning with a story familiar to Friends.  It’s the story of George Fox’s epiphany.  It’s about a moment in his life in 1647 when he was at a place called Pendle Hill.  It’s the moment he realized that God could and would speak to him in the present.  It’s the story of when he came to realize that he did not need priests or preachers or pastors.  It’s the story of when he came to realize the power of the Light Within.

He had been  seeking help in his spiritual journey from various learned and supposedly wise people.  None of them seemed to be able to help him.  He was in despair.  And then he realized something unexpected and wonderful.  Here’s how he tells the story in his Journal.  Speaking of the priests and preachers and pastors from whom he had been seeking assistance, he said,

I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall prevent it? and this I knew experimentally.”    — George Fox, 1647

I think the words we mostly remember from this are these:  “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

Those are striking words, no doubt about it.  But today it’s the last phrase that is on my mind.  “And this I knew experimentally.”  “And this I knew experimentally:”  what did Fox mean by this?

I’m not a linguist or a philologist, but I think Fox’s use of the word “experimentally” is a very early use of that word in English.  It’s a newish word when he spoke it.  We don’t yet have in 1647 ‘the scientific method’ as we know it today.  Galileo had just died, still convicted of heresy by the Pope.  And Isaac Newton was just age 5 in 1647.  We shouldn’t think the word ‘experimental’ had precisely the same narrow meaning then that it might today. But it did have a meaning roughly like the way we use it today

Broadly speaking, to know something “experimentally” is to know it “by experience.”  Fox doesn’t mean that he had conducted a formal experiment with randomized groups or controls or double-blind procedures, the way scientists might speak about experiments today.  But in saying he knew this “experimentally” he does mean he had direct experience. 

When we speak of “experience” we mean direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.  Normally, we mean seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – knowledge we gain through our senses.  Most of us today think of our senses as external senses: they are how we perceive or experience the world ‘out there’.  What Fox is saying, I think, is that we can have internal experience.  There is another sense beyond the five we mostly count.  It’s an internal sense.  I think this is what Fox is speaking about when he says, “And this I knew experimentally.”

I felt it.  I heard it.  It touched me.  I felt it within. 

This is all on my mind because I’ve found myself thinking about what this ‘direct experience’ feels like.  What does it ‘feel like’ when God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit – however you want to name the Divine — ‘speaks to my condition?’  What do I know when I know experimentally?

Fox heard a voice.  There are some who have quite a forceful experience.  The Apostle Paul was one.  Acts 9:3-4 tells the story:  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He saw a light. 

In 1559 (about a century before Fox’s epiphany) Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun had a quite direct experience with a seraph – a kind of angel:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it … She felt a touch that pierced her. 

 Most of us don’t have experiences as dramatic as these.  So, again, what does it feel like?  That’s a question for each of us to answer.  Each of us might give a somewhat different answer. For most of us, it’s less like piercings of the heart and more like glimpses and nudges.  Over the centuries, Quakers have recorded what it felt like in journals and in letters to one another.  The glimpses and nudges are so gentle that most of us have to learn to notice them.  They can be subtle; they can be easy to miss. 

This spring, along with a dozen or two others, I’ve been in a Midweek Meditation group led by Brian Drayton.  He’s been having us read and reflect on some of the letters and essays of Isaac Penington, a contemporary of Fox who was drawn to Quakerism.  

In one, Penington speaks of the “breathings” of the Lord leaving a living presence in him. 

In the same essay, he asks, “Dost thou feel the ease which comes from the living arm, to the heart which is joined to it in the light of the gospel?”  And he asks, “Dost thou feel the life and power flowing in upon thee from the free fountain?”  The direct experience he’s talking about is a breath, now it’s a touch, and now it’s a taste of water.

What strikes me in these passages is that Penington is not saying, authoritatively, ‘This is what it feels like.’  He’s not telling; he’s asking: “Dost thou feel?”  He is suggesting; he is coaching.  He is asking, did it feel something like this? 

He is directing our attention to what it might feel like.  But it is up to us to say.  We have to figure it out.  We have to feel it; we can’t be told what we should feel. 

In these suggestions he offers – “Dost thou feel?” – he mentions all of the familiar external senses as what it might feel like internally.  It might be something we see, or it might be a voice we hear.  It might be a body touch – a nudge that leads us down a path.  It might be a lingering smell, or a taste of something refreshing that gives us guidance. 

Penington has a language for the external senses, but not really the words that communicate what it might feel like within.  Nor really do any of us.  So Penington offers a variety of analogies: it might feel like this; it might feel like that, it might feel like this. 

Penington is assuring us, with Fox, “this we know experimentally.”  We can have direct experience.  He is also telling us, the experience may be subtle; we may have to search for it; we may have to quiet ourselves and still ourselves to feel the experience. 

Nevertheless, we can do this.  This we know experimentally.  So, Friends: dost thou feel?

Also posted on the website of Durham Friends Meeting

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Sturgeon Leaping on the Androscoggin

Just a half mile or so upriver from our house, courtesy of the Nature Conservancy in Maine and Seacoast Current

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Grotesque

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Ursula Le Guin, “To the Rain”

In the Annual Report of the American Council of Learned Societies (where I worked from 1993 to 1997), the current President of ACLS quotes lovely poem by Ursula LeGuin:

To the Rain

BY URSULA K. LE GUIN

Mother rain, manifold, measureless,

falling on fallow, on field and forest,

on house-roof, low hovel, high tower,

downwelling waters all-washing, wider

than cities, softer than sisterhood, vaster

than countrysides, calming, recalling:

return to us, teaching our troubled

souls in your ceaseless descent

to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root,

to sink in, to heal, to sweeten the sea.

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The Light, The Seed, The Tree of Life

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, April 10, 2022

How do we talk about a God who is beyond our knowing?

The opening hymn we sang this morning, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise,” praises a God beyond our comprehension: “immortal, invisible God only wise, in Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  That’s one way to talk about God: to acknowledge that God is so far beyond us we can’t begin to comprehend.  Walter Smith, who wrote the hymn doesn’t even try. 

We Quakers often take a different path.  Sometimes we talk about ‘that of God within.’  That’s pretty inspecific.

Often we speak often of the Light, or the Light Within.  (And it isn’t a ”Light inaccessible hid from our eyes” that we’re talking about.)  We often ask that people be “held in the Light,” and we ask that others “hold us in the Light” in difficult times.  This is Light we claim to be able to experience, and this has become our preferred way of talking about God or Spirit or Jesus. 

Of course, it’s a metaphor.  We don’t literally mean we worship Light in the same way we might imagine a group of people worshipping a volcano or fire; it’s not even like worshipping the great and powerful Oz.  We know words will fail us when we speak of God.  Words can’t really capture the power or the majesty of God.  Words can’t really convey the fullness of God’s love for us.  So, we use a term that gestures at some of what we comprehend about God.  As I say, it’s a metaphor. 

Early Friends (and not just Friends) found this idea of God as Light in the Bible.  It’s often a metaphor there.  Here are some familiar verses

Isaiah 9:2      The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. 

Matthew 4:16    The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Goodness!  There’s Matthew showing us Jesus quoting Isaiah!

John 8:12      Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 

Ephesians 5:8     For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.

Drawing from that passage, early Friends called themselves The Children of the Light. 

It’s a very powerful and suggestive metaphor.  When it’s there, Light makes things clear to us.  Light warms us and comforts us.  Light is everywhere.  These are features of Light: that it comforts us, and that it can be anywhere.  We’re saying God is something like this too.  But it’s a metaphor; again, it’s not Light that we worship. 

I find this metaphor of the Light most helpful when I bring to mind that Light can be searching, that it can reveal what is in dark corners, that it can strip us bare, reveal what we would like to conceal.  But we use it less often this way. 

God is more than we can ever wrap our minds around.  That’s a reason we resort to metaphors.  When we resort to a metaphor we’re saying ‘God is sort of like this, in some ways. 

This use of a metaphor, it seems to me, is akin to Jesus’s use of parables.  Most of Jesus’s teaching come to us as parables rather than as rules to follow or dos and don’ts.  We’re meant to learn something from the parable, and we do, but sometimes the parable helps us see that what we’re to learn is more complicated than any simple rule.  We’re learning a way of thinking and learning a way of being that’s beyond simple laws or rules.  Teaching us through parables is a better way to learn that.  But it’s also a warning that we shouldn’t think the lesson can be reduced to something simple or clear-cut. 

It’s the same with a metaphor.  When we remember it’s just a metaphor, we need to remember not to take it too literally – not to settle into thinking that God IS Light – or that’s the totality of God.

I’ve been reading some writings of early Friends.  Here is Isaac Penington, an important early Quaker, and a wonderful writer.  In one of his works, shortly after he began considering himself a Quaker, he wrote of the Savior in this way:

He is the tree of life … whose leaves have virtue in them to heal the nations. He is the plant of righteousness, the plant of God’s right hand. Hast thou ever known such a plant in thee, planted there by the right hand of God?

“He is the tree of life.”  That is another wonderful metaphor – the tree of life planted inside us.

It puts me in mind of another marvelous metaphor much used by early Friends, used perhaps as often as they spoke of the Light.  This is the idea of talking about an indwelling God, the God within, as The Seed.  This metaphor, too, has Biblical roots. 

Here is Matthew 13:31-32   He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven  is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

Many of us will remember the parable of the sower that is in three gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke.  That, too, is about God as “The Seed.”

Here is another take on the Seed:

John 12:23-25    Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.

Here is 1 John 3:9       No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

Just like the Light, or the Light Within, the Seed is a powerful image.  It, too, is just a metaphor, but it calls out or suggests different aspects of the nature of God and of our possible relationship with God.  I think that’s one reason early Friends didn’t just settle on one metaphor, but shifted from metaphor to metaphor: the Light, the Seed, the Tree of Life, and many others. 

This metaphor of the Seed helps us see God in a different way.  The Light is just there.  But the Seed needs to be tended.  That’s like the tree of life.  It’s just a seed unless it is given the right kind of attention.  If it’s not given the right kind of attention, it may dry up. 

Early Friends sometimes talked, too, of another Seed; this one they called the Seed of the serpent.  Human beings could give their attention to one or to the other.  One of those Seeds would grow, and the other would not.  It’s a choice you make.  Without care and attention from you, it’s the Seed of the serpent that will flourish in you. 

This is very different from Light and Darkness.  There are two Seeds.  We can tend one or we can tend the other will decide which will grow.  If we give ourselves over to greed or envy or hatred, it is the Seed of the Serpent that will grow. 

The metaphor of the Light has been a familiar one since I first encountered Quakers.  I think it has become so common, so used, so overworked, that it’s become a little unhelpful.  It has less potency to help me see God.  These other metaphors are helping me other aspects of God, and thus becoming more useful to me in my spiritual life. 

And I’m finding these three images together, these metaphors of the Light, the Seed and the Tree of Life very helpful to me.  Together, the three metaphors, bring to mind something growing, changing, life-filled.

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website

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Losing and Finding My Bearings

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 5, 2021

Sometimes when we’re confused, we say “let me just get my bearings, here.”  I may have just woken up from a nap.  Or I may have stumbled on a walk.  Maybe I’ve hit my head on a rafter in the basement and that’s left me woozy.  Everything seems odd; I’m disoriented or muddled.  So I say, “Let me just get my bearings, here.” 

Once I woke up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room.  I’d been traveling a good deal, changing time zones, and sleeping in unfamiliar hotels.  When I work in the dark that night I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.  But even worse, I couldn’t quite think who I was.  That was confusing and more than a little frightening. 

In those moments when I’m confused, I search for something fixed and clear that tells us who we are or what we’re doing or where we’re going.  It might be a familiar landmark that helps me get my bearings.  It might be any number of things, but it’s something I can grasp hold of that helps us get our bearings.  It needs to be something fixed, something sturdy – hopefully so fixed its permanent. 

That awful night in a strange hotel room, it was only when I tripped over my briefcase that I’d left on the floor of the room that it all came back to me.  I got my bearings.  Suddenly it all came back to me.  Once again I knew who I was and what I was doing there.  The briefcase wasn’t particularly fixed.  I kicked it a few feet when I tripped over it, but there was a familiar object filled with familiar things that put me right again in the world and in my mind.  But often, familiar things aren’t where we should look to find our bearings. 

“Let me just get my bearings, here.”  It’s an unusual phrase.  It comes from navigation, especially from navigating at sea when there were no landmarks in view and before there was GPS or anything like it.  It comes from using the stars or a compass to find your way.  Hopefully you have a map (or something like a map) that shows where you’re going, and the map shows which way is north.  You use a compass to help you know which compass direction to steer to take you where you want to go.  That direction is your bearing.  It’s the number of degrees away from due north you want to head.  If a wave (or something) knocks you off course, you use the compass to get back on your bearings. 

This phrase, this idea, is on my mind because we’re living in crazy-making times.  Every morning there is a fresh load of things on the news that sound crazy to me.  They sound like people have lost their way. 

Most obviously, there’s a pandemic that’s killing millions.  We have a vaccine that protects against it and is almost sure to prevent serious illness.  But some people won’t take it.  That seems crazy to me.  I can only imagine those people have lost their bearings. 

Talk of conspiracies abound.  I’m not eager to wander into politics here today, but if you read the news at all, I think you know what I mean. 

It feels like a lot of people have lost their bearings.  They’re confused, or muddled – or afraid, and they’re looking for something that helps them get their bearings back.  They’re looking for something to grab hold of, something sturdy and solid, that helps them get their bearings. 

Where do they look for something to get their bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Some people try to find their bearings at work.  Their work has meaning for them and they try to do it well.  When they can’t find work, or when their work seems pointless or degrading, it can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.  Other people try to find their bearings in their family – in the relationships that connect people to one another.  When those relationships don’t work or break down, or when they take a shape they hadn’t expected – had never imagined – that, too can feel like they’ve lost their bearings.

And some people try to find their bearings in traditions.  They want things to be just like they were when they were growing up, or the way they were for their parents or their grandparents.  Change is hard.  And when comes, as it always does, people feel like they’ve lost their bearings. Maybe they are looking for their bearings in the wrong place. 

Jesus’s parents lived in crazy-making times.  The Romans had conquered Judea in 63 BC, not long before they were born.  Suddenly the Jews were no longer an independent people.  Their king was not really their king.  Jesus was born into a world at a time and in a place where many people had lost their bearings. 

Where should we look for our bearings?  That’s really what I want to talk about today. 

Think about the “three wise men” who have a starring role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.  Who were these “wise men?” Who were these men who felt compelled to follow a star – something that itself seems a little crazy.  But it felt right to them – and it was right.  Who were these guys?

We generally call them Kings, or the Magi. (“Magi” is from the same root as the word “magic.”)  It’s a word from the Persian language and that’s where we think these Magi came from. I’ve been reading a new translation of the Gospels, this one by Sarah Ruden, a Classics scholar who has been drawn to worship among Friends.  Here’s how she translates the verses in Matthew 2:

When Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, diviners from where the sun rises appeared at Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born? We did see his star at its rising and have come to prostrate ourselves before him.”

“Diviners” is how she translates the word.  What makes these men “wise” is that they took their bearings from the stars.  They took them from something much more fixed and solid than work or family or tradition.  These three were skilled at reading the stars, and they saw in the stars the signs of divine things. 

“Diviners.”  They were not Jews and of course they were not Christians (Jesus was just about to be born).  They were probably Zoroastrian priests, but they took their bearings from the stars and that led them – compelled them – to come a long distance to worship a baby they’d never me – whose parents they’d never met.  They took their bearings from the stars – from divine things.  And the Ruden translation says:

 “When they saw the star there, their joy was heaped on joy, in great abundance.”

It wasn’t dizziness they felt.  It wasn’t confusion.   It’s because they took their bearings from divine things, not from earthly things, that this strange long journey they took filled them with joy. 

It’s easy to get caught up in earthly things.  It’s easy to try to find our bearings in those earthly things.  But those earthly things – work and family and tradition – are unlikely to give us a long-lasting and joy-filling sense of who we are and what’s right to do.

Those Diviners followed a star.  They followed it to Jesus at the point of his birth.  And his birth can point us towards a way of finding our bearings. 

That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  That’s why we find an abundance of joy in Christmas. 

How do we find our bearings in divine things?  That’s why Christmas is only the beginning of the story.   There’s a long road to travel to find our bearings, but we have to look to divine things to travel that road. 

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website

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Winslow Homer, The Blue Boat, 1892

Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston); image from Wikimedia Commons

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War and Foolishness

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 19, 2021

War is what’s on my mind and in my heart today – and foolishness, too.  War and foolishness because war, I believe, is one of the most profound forms of human foolishness, and tragic, too.  War and foolishness have been on my mind because of the recent end of the war in Afghanistan and also because of the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the ‘war on terror.’  Hundreds of thousands of lives lost – who knows how many? – and trillions of dollars spent badly. 

In October of 2012 –I jotted down the following list of things that are likely to happen in a war – things that are likely to happen beyond soldiers being killed or wounded.  I don’t remember what led me to write down this list.  This was nine years ago, and eleven years after 9/11.  Most U.S. troops had left Iraq a year earlier, and U.S. troops would still be in Afghanistan for almost a decade longer.  So I don’t remember why I jotted down this list.  We were very much in the middle of a never-ending war, as we always seem to be. 

  • Young lives will be ruined.  The survivors will wake with terrible memories. 
  • Civilians will be killed.
  • The costs will be much, much higher than anticipated.
  • Unspeakable acts will be committed, some by us.
  • Civil liberties at home will be trampled.
  • There will be secrecy and lies that undermine democracy.
  • We will worsen our relations with some otherwise uninvolved friends and serve the purposes of some opportunistic bad actors.
  • We will create massive, distant wreckage that we will not want to repair.
  • We will entangle ourselves in ways that will make it hard for us to disengage.
  • We will set in motion an unfolding humanitarian crisis that will last for years: refugees, divided families, deprivation and the like. 
  • We will sow the seeds of future conflict. 
  • We will fail to learn lessons of peacebuilding because we won’t have tried it, again. 

All these things happened in Afghanistan.  All these things happened in Iraq.  And they happened in Syria and Lebanon and Libya, too – and not only in those places.  It would be foolish to go to war and not expect that most of the bad things will happen.  Those who support wars should have their eyes wide open and their hearts hardened in anticipation of these tragedies. 

I’ve opposed this sequence of wars.  When I’ve written my Senators or written a letter to the editor, I’ve talked about these terrible things that are likely to happen and urged them to oppose these wars.  I’ve mostly written about things on this list. 

Let’s call the items on this list the prudential arguments against war.  War won’t get us where we want to get to.  It won’t bring peace; it will bring further war.  It will not bring understanding; it will bring mistrust and hatred.  War today will bring war tomorrow.  You’d have to be foolish to expect anything else.  We have abundant recent evidence. 

But these prudential reasons for being against war aren’t really why I’m against war.  These prudential reasons are important – very important – but deep down I know I am against war because I am a foolish person – foolish in a very different way. 

I’m a different kind of foolish person because I’m a pacifist. 

I became a pacifist in the late 1960s during another war, the one in Vietnam.  (All those bad things on the list happened then, too; they always do.)  I became a pacifist before I became a Quaker.  It was in understanding why pacifism made sense, even though it was foolishness, that I found my way to Quakerism.

Why is pacifism a kind of foolishness?  Do you even need to ask?  Tell someone you are a pacifist and they look at you with utter dismay and incredulity.  Voiced or unvoiced you hear a torrent of questions.  Would you have let the Nazis win?  If someone attacked your mother, wouldn’t you try to stop the attacker?  If they attacked your wife? Your children?  Would you really not raise a hand to stop an aggressor? 

It’s unfathomable; people can’t believe you’re serious; as soon as you say you’re a pacifist they know you are a fool. 

You certainly put yourself beyond the boundaries of reasoned argument.  You can no longer have any standing whatsoever in discussions of foreign policy.  There is no point in writing your Senator and telling her she should oppose a war because you’re a pacifist.  That letter will carry no weight.  When you say you’re a pacifist you put yourself out of bounds – beyond the pale.  Only ‘serious people’ get to participate in the decisions about going to war – and no ‘serious person’ is a pacifist.

I understand being a pacifist is foolishness.  It’s a very, very different kind of foolishness from the foolishness of thinking that war won’t bring those twelve terrible things I listed before.  You have to choose which kind of foolishness is yours:  believing that war will work, or believing that one door to a different, better world (the “beloved community”) is marked “I will not go to war.”  Let’s call the pacifist argument against war the transformational argument against war.  It’s an argument deeply grounded in Jesus’s argument to love your neighbor as yourself. 

“What if everyone acted like you did?”  That’s one of the torrent of questions you provoke if you declare for pacifism.  And that one question is easy to answer:  You can say, that would be wonderful.  You have to believe – you should believe – that everyone can and should make the same choice, the choice to say no to war.  Not just your family and friends, not just your fellow citizens, but everyone would make the same choice. 

Pacifism is a kind of foolishness that begins by saying I am not going to accept that what has happened over and over again is the only possibility. 

“I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”  That’s from George Fox, of course.  He’s saying, I took myself out of this world and put myself in a different world.  And, he might well have added, I’m not coming back. 

Join me in the that new world, Fox is saying.  Sign up for the foolishness that says there are new possibilities.  We can do this together.  We can choose to love one another.  We can put ourselves into an understanding that each and every one of us is a child of God, capable of giving and receiving love.  But each of us has to begin by making the individual choice to say no to war.  Each of us needs to make a solid commitment to the way of love, not a tentative or half-hearted, ‘but you go first’ one. 

Yes, that’s foolishness.  It is a rare and wonderful kind of foolishness.  Here’s a statement from British Friends in 1920 – that is, just after the end of another horrible war – in which all those terrible things happened. 

“When the early Friends said that the ‘Spirit of Christ would never move them to fight and war against any man with outward weapons!’ they not only testified that war was wrong, but they also indicated that there was a new and right way of dealing with men consonant with Love, and certain to be attended by a success far greater than had ever been attained by war. Instead of destroying or suppressing the evil-doers, the new method would transform them into children of light. These early Friends were come ‘into the Covenant of Peace which was before wars and strifes were’ and by their lives lived in the power of the light they were helping others to enter that same covenant.”

Or as A. J. Muste once put it, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

Yes, pacifism is foolishness by the world’s lights, but it is, I believe, a far, far better foolishness than the endless alternative of war. 

So here is the choice, a choice between two kinds of foolishness.  Do you choose the foolishness of war and its terrible train of tragedies, or the foolishness of a new life lived in love?

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

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