Holy Silence and Worldly Silence

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 14, 2020

People of my generation (and I use that term very loosely to include many of us) may not know much of the Bible.  Unlike my parents I didn’t grow up memorizing Bible verses.  But most of us in my generation know the first eight verses of the third chapter of the 21st book in the Hebrew Testament.  That’s because some guy just took those lines (from the King James Version), set them to music, and recorded it as a song.  That was Pete Seeger; he recorded it in 1962.  When the Byrds released a version of it in 1965 as “Turn, Turn, Turn,” it went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  And the song still has the distinction of being the song that reached #1 with the oldest lyrics.

Here are those first eight verses of the third chapter of the 21st book of the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes, a book that by legend, was written by King Solomon:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

It’s a song with a strong connection to an era of peace protests and civil rights demonstration, an era of insistence on doing right.  It was a call to peace and justice – and it still is. 

“A time to keep silence and a time to speak;” “a time of war and a time of peace.”  For many of us, the song came to mean that now, right now, was a time for peace and a time for speaking out.  More than a half century later, here we are again. 

How can that be?  Have we learned nothing? Have we achieved nothing?

For Quakers, for worshipping communities like us, silence is at the core of our spiritual practice.  We gather in silence for worship.  Sometimes we stay in silence for the whole of our worship time.  But this doesn’t seem like a time for silence; it seems like a time for speaking.  And more than that, it seems like a time for doing. 

I’ve been thinking that there are two kinds of silence, and they are quite different. 

One kind we might call holy silence.  We quiet ourselves to hear God.  We quiet ourselves to give attention to what God is asking of us. 

The other kind we might call worldly silence.  We’re silent because we’re lost or confused; we don’t know what to say.  We’re silent because we’re biting our tongues.  We know what to say but we aren’t strong enough or brave enough to say it. 

Worldly silence is a stay-on-the-sidelines kind of silence.  Holy silence is a getting-ready kind of silence, a getting ready to speak and a getting ready to act kind of silence. 

What is it we have to say?  It’s not good enough to say we’re against racial inequity; it’s not good enough to say we that Black Lives Matter.  We Quakers (not us, but those who came before us) were early to speak up for the abolition of slavery.  But we were largely unprepared for what would come after slavery.  We didn’t welcome African-Americans into Friends Meetings or into Quaker schools or colleges.  Fit for Freedom But Not for Friendship is the quite telling title of the book that Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye wrote about that.  We were silent, tongue-tied maybe, or worse. 

Many Quakers supported the civil rights advocacy of the 1960s that led to the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965.  But in our lifetimes, we’ve seen those weren’t enough.  And worse, we’ve seen those steps forward rolled back, gutted.  We may not have wanted that roll-back, but we didn’t speak manage to speak out strongly enough to stop that rollback

401 years since the first people were brought to these shores in chains, enslaved; 244 years since we proclaimed all people created equal; 155 years since the end of Civil War and the end of state-authorized slavery.  We still have deep and persisting racial injustice in this country. 

We see police violence.  And nothing done about it.

We see persisting gaps in achievement in our schools.

We see school expulsions and suspensions disproportionately exercised against people of color.

We see the right to vote denied to African Americans.  Polling places closed.  Voter registrations cancelled.  Gerrymandering.  Voting machines sabotaged.

We see prisons disproportionately filled with people of color.

We see neighborhoods segregated by race. 

We see deep and persisting inequalities in employment.  In income.  In wealth.

In every conceivable way we see unjustified – unjustifiable – gaps between the life experience of people simply on the basis of race and color. 

We see worse health care and worse health outcomes for people of color.  COVID 19 is hitting people of color particularly hard.  I read recently that in the last decade 1200 scientific papers were published calling attention to racial disparities in health and medical care.  Noticing isn’t enough.  Talking about it isn’t enough. 

Here in Maine we can stand a little to one side of all this – the whitest state in the union (or is it Vermont?).  But is that anything that excuses our silence, really?

In every realm of life, we see injustice.  If we don’t see it, shame on us. If we don’t speak out about it, shame on us.  If we don’t try to make it right, shame on us.

Today, we are called to see that we make good on the promise of equality.  We are called to speak out – to insist that we truly be a country that accords liberty and justice to all,

There are political currents that are working on this:  movements, organizations, campaigns. Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, many others.  These all need our support and we should give support to them. 

We should also remember where we will find our bearings.  We’re not going to find our deepest bearings in politics alone, in movements or campaigns no matter how passionate or righteous the cause.  It’s not where we should look to find them.  We need to go deeper

To be at our best, our clearest, our most courageous, we find them here in worship. 

We will find them in the holy silence we share.  We will find our bearings in the holy silence in which we listen for God’s leadings.

We will learn again and anew:  that each and every human being is a child of God.  We will learn again and anew:  that each and every human being has the capacity to know God, to hear what God has to tell us, us humans, and to share that with others.  Those others include each and every human being, whatever their race, or religion, whatever their age or their occupation – teacher or student, protestor or policeman. 

We will learn again and anew that violence and domination won’t work.  They only prepare the way for more violence in the future.  We will learn again and anew that in listening carefully to God “we can be changed—even transformed.”  We will learn again and anew that in the holy silence, “We can come to live lives reflecting the Light and Love of God” and that this will give us the clarity and courage to transform the world.  Those words, that “we can be changed—even transformed” and “we can come to live lives reflecting the Light and Love of God” are right up front on the New England Yearly Meeting website about “what we believe.” 

“A time to keep silence and a time to speak;” “a time of war and a time of peace.”  Those are words from Ecclesiastes.  In this troubled time, we need to gather in silence to see where God would direct us, and we need to be prepared to speak and to act when we leave Meeting.  In this time of hate and or war, we must prepare the way for a time of peace and of love.  We need holy silence but not worldly silence. 

Crossposted at DurhamFriendsMeeting.org.

Posted in Peace & Social Concerns | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

What Does It Mean to Be Alive?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 10, 2020

The message I have this morning is about what it means to be alive – something very much on my mind as we go through this time of pandemic. 

The summer I turned 13, playing baseball at a local summer program at the school just up the street,  I was hit in the face by a thrown baseball.  It fractured my jaw and generally made a mess of my mouth. 

It was such a mess that it was only after I’d spent an hour in the emergency room and another hour in a dentist’s chair that we knew I’d lost a front tooth.  Two of my friends were dispatched to see if they could find it.  Sifting through the dirt in front of home plate they did.  As instructed, they put it in a glass with (I think) some salty water.  And the next day the dentist put it back in my mouth.  It might work, he said, maybe not, but it’s worth a try.  It might still be alive.  It might still be alive.  What a thought! 

Turns out it didn’t work.  The tooth didn’t live and had to be removed a few days later.  But I’m glad they tried.  I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to say that the tooth might still be alive when it was there in the dirt in front of home plate.  But I find myself thinking about it now.  It’s what makes kidney transplants possible, or heart or liver transplants, blood transfusions, amazing things. 

That tooth was a little bit of me, outside my body, still living. 

Fast forward several decades.  Earlham College has a wonderful practice of inviting the faculty to have lunch together every Wednesday.  It’s a chance to socialize with colleagues from all the different departments.  You learn all kind of things sitting next to a weaving teacher, an anthropologist, a chemist and a psychologist. 

I remember one lunch where I made some off-hand remark about a virus (I can’t remember why) about what an amazing living thing a virus was, so small, able to cause so much mayhem.  A biologist sitting next to me said “what makes you think a virus is alive?”  Those of us at the table were all surprised and offered ideas about what it meant to be alive – all of which were true of a virus.  The biologist shot them all down.  It can’t live on its own, he said.  It can’t reproduce on its own.  It needs a host.  He left us wondering whether a virus really is alive. 

On the Center for Disease Control website it says “A virus is an infectious agent that occupies a place near the boundary between the living and the nonliving. It is a particle much smaller than a bacterial cell, consisting of a small genome of either DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein coat. Viruses enter host cells and hijack the enzymes and materials of the host cells to make more copies of themselves. Viruses cause a wide variety of diseases in plants and animals, including AIDS, measles, smallpox, and polio.” Also, COVID-19 we now know.   

“Near the boundary between the living and the nonliving.”  A virus contains RNA or DNA, and it can replicate itself, but only if it has entered the cells of something else that is alive.  It can’t exist on its own, though like my tooth it can sort of be alive for a short while as it passes from one host organism to another – from one person to another as we sneeze, for example.  Viruses hijack our bodies for the sole purpose of making copies of themselves. 

Viruses can make us sick; they can kill us; but they depend upon us for their existence. 

What does it mean to be alive?  That’s my question for this morning.  I don’t want to lose track of that. 

Today, all of us gathered here on Zoom are all alive – but living a strange existence.  We’re separated from one another.  Mostly we can communicate only by email and phone and other electronic means.  Hugs are rare.  We can share meals only with those in our immediate families.  Are we really alive?  It feels like something is missing. 

A virus isn’t alive when it’s by itself, when it’s on its own.   Are we?  Are we alive when we’re by ourselves?  I think that’s a question that is being forced upon us.  And I think our answer is this: we‘re not as alive as we’d like to be.  We’d like to be with others. 

We like to think that one of the glories of Western culture is “Individualism.”  It’s the idea that “the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount.”  Individual rights.  Rugged individualism. 

But deep down we know we can carry that idea too far.  In 1623, John Donne wrote “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”   Two thousand years before that, Aristotle began his book The Politics with these words: “Man is a polis creature.”  He means, by nature, human beings are beings that live in community.  That need one another.  That rely on one another.  And not just for material goods, but for love and friendship, for support, for grieving and for celebration. 

It turns out we aren’t so different from the virus.  It can’t exist by itself/on its own.  But neither can we. 

This is one lesson we’ve all been learning as we have been shut up in our homes, distancing ourselves from one another: that we need one another.  But it’s more than that: we need each other in a relationship of love that connects us with God because that is what gives us life.  The Gospel of John expresses this in a powerful metaphor:  Jesus says:

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. …

But there is another lesson, harder, but at least as important about ‘being alive.’  In this time of virus, in this time of dying, it is easy to fall into thinking that ‘all living things are good.’ What lives is all part of God’s glory, all to be nurtured, all to be celebrated, all to be saved.  It’s easy to think that — especially easy as spring blooms around us. 

As we gather here separated from one another, however, we know this is not so.  There are bits of creation that are not so good, and this virus is one of them.  The cancers that afflict too many of us: they are another.  Murder hornets: we’ve just started hearing about them.  Black flies.  Typhus and typhoid and smallpox.  I mean all these things, but there’s more. 

There are also bits of ourselves that live all too commonly within us, things that are not good:  selfishness, pride, envy, greed, wrath – things like that.  These things become a part of us all too easily, and they are things that should not live within us.  We might think of them as like a virus.  They live within us, become a part of us, even take over our lives.  They infect us. 

They are little bits of us – within us – that should not be living. 

Jesus asks us to let these things die within us so that we can live a new and transformed life.  Some of the hardest parts of the New Testament are about this. 

Says Paul in Colossians:  Therefore put to death the parts of your earthly nature.   In his letters to the Romans, Paul says:  13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

And in Ephesians, Paul reminds us:  22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Can we think of these things, our “deceitful desires” that too easily become a part of us, as like a virus, having life only because they latch onto us and work their own purposes?  Can we think of these things as parts of us that must die so we can truly live?  Can we think of them as infections – even infections we carelessly pass from one to another?  If we can, we know the cure:  to love one another in the vine.  

Can we find ourselves a new life by ridding ourselves of these, by loving one another?  This is the transformed life to which we are called.

Posted in Beliefs, Bible, Message | 1 Comment

Do We Leave Politics at the Door of the Meeting Room?

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 8, 2020

When I first attended Meeting at Haverford College in the fall of 1964, I encountered non-stop talk – in Meeting — about the Vietnam War.  Most of it against, a little of it in favor of the war, but non-stop.  Ellen tells me when she went to Meeting in Boston years ago, she encountered very little other than speeches the penal system in Massachusetts.  She didn’t feel led to go back to that Meeting. 

Sometimes there is a lot of political talk in Quaker Meetings.  It is politics I am led to talk about this morning.  Is that out of bounds here?  Should it be?

This past week, political issues have been on my mind nearly every hour of every day.  I read a lot of political news and opinion.  I voice my own opinions; I have plenty.  What is the President doing now?  How about the Attorney General?  What’s the EPA up to now?  Who should be the next Senator elected to represent Maine?  I’m sure you’ve each given thought to those things, too.  But how about here, in this room, during this hour?  Should politics come in the door with us? Should we hold back on politics, saving what we might have said for another time and place? 

This is a question that has vexed us here at Durham Meeting in the past.  Without doubt we have bruised and angered one another from time to time.  I know that’s been a worry afloat among us. 

To say “politics” is to call up a realm in which there will be disagreements and in which there will be strong passions and definite commitments.  There will be ‘sides’.  Parties.  Factions.

On the other hand, here, at Durham Meeting, in worship, we seek unity.  We seek the clear and therefore whole and unified will of God.  Does that not straightforwardly tell us that politics has no place here?  That we should lay down our politics at the door, or at least in the vestibule, and pick them up again only when we leave?

That’s tempting, but that doesn’t feel right to me.  It doesn’t feel right because I do not feel there are any bounds on what we might hear from God in this room. 

Leave our politics at the door?  When I come to Meeting, I come in through the corner door, I take off my coat and hat before I enter the Meeting room.  What else should I leave at the door?  Turn off my phone. 

Once I’ve sat down, I try to take off other things.  Things that are on my mind.  Grocery lists.  To do lists.  Petty concerns:  I always have a bunch with me.  Whatever is on my mind, I try to set aside.  Lay it down.  It’s not what’s on my mind that I want on my mind.  It is what is on God’s mind that I’m seeking.  And I’ll likely find out what is on God’s mind if I empty myself as thoroughly as I can.   I expect (or at least I hope) God will find me here if I am ready.  And I am only going to be ready if I have laid down all my stuff – my stuff, a messy bunch of shallow stuff – to listen to what’s on God’s mind.  A lot of weeks I never quite succeed.  There is so much clutter in my head, so much noise, that I never manage to lay it all aside.  But that’s what I try to do.  Worship asks that of me. 

Even when my mind is cluttered and restless, I almost always leave Meeting with something new, something valuable I didn’t have when I came in: some insight, some new focus.

Lay down what’s on my mind; pick up what’s on God’s mind:  that’s the whole deal.  (Almost always I come out ahead.  God must have a very big landfill for the stuff we lay down.  How does God recycle it all?)

Is there any limit on what I lay down?  Is there anything I should just keep to myself – squirrel it away in an inside pocket or wrap it up in a bag next to me?  Keep it safe from God’s prying eyes?  I don’t think so. 

Just as important:  Is there any limit on what I might hear from God?  Are there any things I suspect God won’t talk to me about?  Any taboo subjects?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I don’t understand God that well and don’t think I ever will.  But in my limited experience there is nothing out of bounds.  Nothing.  I’ve felt God’s nudges about quite a bunch of things.  Some of them very personal.  Some quite vague and others quite pointed and specific.  Some of them things that feel like I should share.  That’s when I feel compelled to stand up and speak. 

One really annoying thing about God is that she doesn’t micromanage.  She’s rarely very specific or directive.  Put love first and you’ll figure it out.  (That’s just great.  Could God just tell me whether to turn left or turn right at this intersection, please?)

But do any topics feel like they are out of bounds for God?  You sometimes hear that you shouldn’t talk about sex, politics or religion in polite society.  So how about sex?  Out of bounds?  No.  How about religion?  No, clearly not.  So how about politics?  I don’t think so.

Ask a different question: Was Abraham a political figure?  Was Moses?  They were leaders, and sometimes people disagreed with their direction.  Was Amos when he said, “But let justice roll on like a river, / righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:24).  How about Micah when he said “And what does the Lord require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  Aren’t these political statements? 

I think we certainly have to acknowledge that Jesus was a political figure.  He was “born a king” in a land that already thought it had a different king.  And he was executed for treason, for claiming to be a king.  (Crucifixion was reserved for punishing treason.)  In between he advocated all manner of things that run against the policies of the current government.  How can I follow Jesus and exclude politics from this room?

So what to do?  I’m still thinking in terms of what do I lay down when I come into this room, and what do I pick up and carry away from it.

When I come into this room, I have to lay down everything, and that includes all my worldly allegiances and commitments.  As Paul says in Galatians (3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Nor is there Red Sox or Yankee.  When I come into this room, I’m not a Democrat.  I’m not for Bernie or Joe or Elizabeth.  I have to lay down my slogans. I have to even lay down my certainties about gun control, climate change and a woman’s right to choose.  They may still be there waiting for me to pick them up when Meeting is over, but for the moment I have to lay them down. 

I’m only with God. 

No, that’s not right.  I’m also with all of you.  We’re all sharing in the work of helping each other settle deeply into worship.  We’re making each other welcome.  We’re looking at each other expectantly.  Perhaps you, or you, or you, will be who channels the voice of God today.  I’m not dismissing anyone because of their politics.

We’re making a place for God, and that means we need to be tender with each other. 

On the other hand, what do I take from this room? 

I have to expect that what I hear in this room, what I take in, will make a difference in every aspect of my life.  It will shape my politics.  It is here in worship that my most basic commitments are forged, and sometimes re-forged.  I have to expect that this is possible.

I have to carry the commitments formed in worship out of this room and let them influence everything I do.  My personal relationships.  My finances.  Everything.  Even my politics. 

Quakers sometimes say, “Let your life speak.”  That goes for politics as well as for everything else.  But it’s what we carry out of worship that lets our lives speak, it’s not what we smuggle into worship. 

Posted in Message, Quaker Practices | Tagged | 3 Comments

Germantown Friends Meeting House

Watercolor by Howard Watson, Old Philadelphia Impressions, 1975

This is the Meeting I first started attending regularly, in the 1970s, and eventually joined.

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Ice Slide, Androscoggin River, 1904

In Topsham, Maine.

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Androscoggin River Valley from Glassface Mountain

from the Bangor Daily News

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Three Ways of Looking at the Christmas Story

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 15, 2019

You’ve probably noticed it’s the Christmas season.  Holiday lights, decorated trees, cookies with icing and sprinkles, advertisements, glitter and glow.  The season when couples apparently give each other pick-up trucks. 

There’s a lot of bustling about.  And somewhere, some of the time, there’s a story about the birth of the person who will be named Jesus, who will be revealed as the son of God, and thirty-some years later will be crucified by some of us at Calvary outside Jerusalem.  And three days later he will declare a victory over death and sin through his resurrection.   We know this story about the birth of Jesus and about what comes later from the Bible – and the Bible alone.  Nowhere else is this story told.  There are very few mentions of this person Jesus in any other source than our Bible. 

In all the glitter and glow, the pomp and parade of Christmas, we can easily lose sight of the Christmas story.  This morning I want to say a very few things about what we might make of the story of Jesus’s birth, the Christmas story.  Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  We don’t have that much time and I’m not that good, so let’s call this “Three Ways of Looking at the Christmas Story.”

I.  The Bible has four accounts of the life of Jesus, but only two of them have a Christmas story: Matthew and Luke.  There is no Christmas story in Mark and none in John.  What’s more interesting, to me, is that once the Christmas story is finished, there’s no mention of the miraculous birth of Jesus in the rest of Matthew or in the rest of Luke.  The Christmas story becomes irrelevant.  No one says to Jesus after he performs a miracle, “oh, you’re the guy born in the manger, with all the angels and animals in attendance.”  No one says, “oh, you’re the guy the kings came to honor when you were born.”  Not a word, not a whisper.  It’s as if everyone forgot about the Christmas story. 

Or maybe it was just added later on.  Maybe it really isn’t part of the Jesus story that begins with preaching and praying and ends with a triumph over death.  Maybe Mark has it right.  Maybe the story really starts when Jesus is a young man and John the Baptist announces that Jesus is the one.  That story about John the Baptist is in all four gospels. 

Miraculous birth stories were a common feature of stories told about heroes back in those days.  In the Iliad, Achilles had a goddess for a mother.  Roman emperors all had miraculous birth stories told about them, for example: their mother or their father was a god. So maybe Matthew and Luke made up a miraculous birth story and added it to their story of Jesus.  ‘You think your guy is special?’  they might be saying.  ‘Well ours is even more special.  Our miraculous birth story has everything: a manger, animals, shepherds, kings, even a narrow escape from assassins.  “Ours Is Just as Big as Yours,” they might be saying, “Maybe Even Bigger.” 

This isn’t my favorite way of looking at Christmas, but when we start getting carried away with the pomp and the glitz and pick-up trucks, I start thinking we’re skidding in this direction.  When you see the product ads on TV this time of year, ask yourself if this isn’t the story: “Ours Is Even Bigger Than Yours.” 

II.  Here’s a different way to look at it.  Take the four gospels.  Each tells a story of a life.  For the moment, put the Christmas story, the birth, to one side.   And also put to one side the stuff at the end about the end of Jesus’s life: about Jesus coming to Jerusalem where he’s arrested, crucified and resurrected.  Now without that beginning and that end, we have the story of a preacher and healer who wanders the countryside doing and saying attention-getting things.  Fresh things.  World turned upside down things.  Be humble. Be so generous as to give away your only coat.  Love your enemy no matter what.  In that big middle story, Jesus gets crosswise with the religious leaders of his time.  He heals on the sabbath, for example.  But Jesus really doesn’t encounter a soldier or a policeman.  He’s never really in danger.  He never gets a ticket or a fine.  He never spends a day in jail. 

In the middle of the story there’s no mention of the Emperor or the Romans. And they’re in control, we need to remember.  The Romans have conquered Israel and Judah and subjugated them.  Their Empire is the greatest, the mightiest ever known.  At the end of story, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, Jesus does get in trouble with the authorities.  Crucifixion is a Roman penalty for the most serious crimes – for challenging the authority of the Emperor. 

If we remember how it ends, that puts the Christmas story in a new light.  The Christmas story announces the birth of a king: not just a mighty king, but the mightiest of all.  It announces the birth of a king who will sweep away all worldly kings, even the Roman emperor.  Born in a stable, laid in a manger.  But here is a baby to whom the wisest of kings bow down.  Here is a baby attended by angels.  Here is baby who is hunted by a wicked king, but a baby who escapes and triumphs.  And here triumphant is a new kind of king who triumphs through love not through the sword. 

“This is the Anti-Empire,” we might call this story.  This is the empire out-empired.  The story at the end is the same story told at the beginning.  Christmas and Resurrection are versions of the same story. 

III.  I’m much more drawn to the second way of looking at Christmas than the first.  If the first one says Christmas is not really part of the Jesus story, the second one says the Christmas story is a telling of the whole miraculous story of the Christ unfolding in his first days and weeks of His life.  It’s concentrated essence of the Jesus story if you really take it all in. 

For some people, I know, the whole Jesus story, start to end, is a little too much.  Maybe you have friends like this.  Miracles aren’t for them.  Humility is OK but only in measured doses.  Sometimes love can triumph, but sometimes we need the sword.  Turning the other cheek doesn’t really work.  And so on.  Know anyone like that?  Know anyone who can only go part of the way with Jesus?

So for them, and for us, too, here’s a third way of looking at Christmas. 

The Christmas story is the story of a birth, the birth of a baby.  There’s a little pain with this birth, but there always is.  And there is also a great deal of hope and anticipation.  There’s much more of this.  This is a baby born in love – as is almost always the case.  Once the baby is born, friends and neighbors crowd around to see the baby.  They want to touch the baby; they want to hold the baby.  Have you had that experience? I bet most of us have.  It is a joyful time, the birth of a baby, wherever the baby is born, whoever are the parents. 

Think of what most excites members of this Meeting.  Isn’t it the birth of a child or grandchild?  Isn’t that the very best story we look forward to hearing?  It’s the most universal story.  It is a story of love, and an essential one. 

The birth of every baby is a fresh beginning.  It is a fresh beginning not just for that baby but for the parents, for the siblings, for the friends and neighbors – really for all of us.  Who knows what this new child will grow up to be?  A scientist?  A poet?  A leader?  a healer? A mother?  A stand-up guy?  A prophet who challenges the Empire?  There are so many wonderful possibilities.  Can’t we imagine shepherds and sheep, angels and kings celebrating at every birth?

Call this telling of the Christmas story “Every Child Is a Miracle Beginning.”  That’s a story all of us can celebrate.

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Building a Fire

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, November 17, 2019

As the days shorten and grow colder, I find myself eyeing the woodpile and the fireplace. I find myself thinking of fires to come. 

I was a Boy Scout:  it was an important part of my teenage years.  I had the good fortune to be a member of a troop that had extraordinary adult leadership, and to those leaders I still feel an immense debt of gratitude. 

One very strong memory I have concerns a jamboree across the border in Ontario with a lot of Canadian scouts.  The Saturday of that weekend was a day of competition at all kinds of skills.  We estimated the heights of trees, followed maps to undisclosed destinations, crossed streams without getting wet (or most of us), hoisted ourselves over walls, and so on.  On the whole, the Canadian scouts were much better than we were at all these events.  That was hard because we thought we were pretty good.  Maybe we were, relative to most American scouts, but these Canadian scouts were more prepared than we were. 

There was one event that day at which we were terrific – better than any of them.  It involved building a fire. And boy could we build a fire – a big fire and fast.  Here was the challenge.  The organizers had stuck some poles in the ground and then tied strings horizontally between the poles, about two or three feet off the ground.  Each scout troop had to gather up material from wherever they could find it nearby, then make and light a fire between the poles that burned through the string.  Fastest to accomplish that was the winner.  Our troop gathered up dead grasses and sticks and built a tall teepee like fire.  We ignited the grasses by using one kid’s glasses to focus the sun and the grasses ignited the sticks.  We did a little careful blowing to make it all go up in flames a little faster.  I think it took us about two minutes.  Other troops took ten or twenty minutes, and some couldn’t do it at all.  On that one triumph, we salvaged a little pride. 

Fires can be magic; they can put us in fear and awe.  In the Bible, fire often signals the presence of God.  Think of the burning bush in Exodus.  John the Baptist tells those who come to him “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (John 3:16). 

Today, most of the fires I build are either in our outdoor Weber grill or inside in the fireplace.  Occasionally, at a campsite.  I still think I can build a pretty good fire out of whatever materials I have close at hand though sometimes my family isn’t so sure as I fiddle and puff. 

One of the things I learned as a scout about building fires is that you can’t build a fire with one stick or even two.  All of you know this, too.  It takes several, and they have to be carefully laid together. If the sticks are too far apart, they won’t help each other catch on fire and stay on fire.  That’s essential: each stick or log helps the others ignite and burn.  You also have to leave a little room for air.  It helps to have a couple of different kinds of materials.  Something that will light easily and burn quickly to start the fire – like the grasses we used that day in Ontario.  Some small sticks that will catch on fire next and help ignite some logs.  And, of course, you need some logs, maybe some pine first because it catches fire at a lower temperature.   Then some good hardwood logs that will burn hot and long – but they take a while to get going, and they need a little help. 

I’ve been thinking that Meeting for worship is a little like building a fire.  It takes at least a few of us gathered together in worship.  One person alone can hardly do it.  Even two or three doesn’t feel like quite enough, though I suppose it can be. 

When I’m here at Meeting and watching people come into the Meeting room, it fills me with gladness to see us gather.  Oh there’s that person and that person; I was hoping they’d be here.  There’s so-and-so: I wish we saw her more often.  Ah, and some folks I haven’t seen before, that’s terrific.  It takes all kinds to build a good fire, one that will catch and burn for a while. 

As we gather and seat ourselves, I can see us building a fire together. We have to leave room for God, or the Spirit.  Perhaps that’s why we ask that there be silence between spoken messages.  That silence is like the oxygen the fire needs.  Together we invite the presence of God. 

There’s magic in the fire, but we make the preparations that invite the magic. 

Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice has this Advice: “We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.” 

“A gathered stillness:” that’s what we need.  A gathering in stillness.  If you want to put a fire out, you pull it apart; you scatter it.  Scattering chases away the magic.  Once a fire dies down, it takes effort and time to make it blaze again. For us, scattering is latecomers, the opening and closing of the doors, bustling about, people entering and leaving after we’ve gathered. 

We want to welcome and encourage everyone to come, but we want everyone to remember we are building a fire together. 

A Southeastern Yearly Meeting Advice says “Be prompt and diligent in attendance at meetings.” That discipline is what it takes for us to build a fire together: to be prompt in gathering and then to join together in stillness.” That means:  Come on time to meeting.  Once in the room, settle yourself for the hour or so.  Stay settled; Together, in stillness, we invite the presence of the Divine. 

An old hymn says,

Lord, I have shut the door, Speak now the word Which in the din and throng Could not be heard;

Hushed now my inner heart, Whisper Thy will, While I have come apart, While all is still.

Without that stillness, we may not find our way to God.

In the stillness, the fire can ignite.  God is invited to come near. 

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Beyond Me

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, October 27, 2019

When I think about God, or about Spirit, or the Light I quickly realize I don’t know very much.  I know that many questions – important questions – are beyond me.  Beyond me.  They’re over my head, outside my ken, too deep for me.  I don’t know why there’s pain in the world.  Why who gets sick is often very unfair. Whether there is life after death.  Those things are beyond me. 

Sitting in a meeting last week, someone used those words, “beyond me,” and I jotted them down. They’ve stayed on my mind.  What’s “me” and what’s “beyond me?”


A lot of the time I’m pretty taken with myself.  I admit that.  I know that.  Many days, maybe most days, I can float on a river of “me-ness.”  I’m in “me-land” much of the time. 

It’s my concerns I’m thinking about; my needs, my wants, my worries, my hopes, my pleasures, my pains.  Me Me Me Me Me Me Me.  There’s a lot of me in my world. 

I may be worse in this regard than most people.  I don’t really know, but maybe.  I certainly don’t think I’m better at getting away from me-land than most people. 

Still, I do notice that most other people most of the time are wondering around in me-land. 

It can be a comfortable place to be, even when I’m annoyed or unhappy about something.  I’m the most important person in me-land.  What I want is the most important thing.  My thoughts are the ones I want to hear – and often the ones I want others to hear.  My hurts, my pains are the ones that seem to most need attention. 

How about you?  Are you number one in your feelings and thoughts most of the time? Are you in Me-land much of the time? 


There are some philosophers who think we can’t be anywhere else.  Me-land is all there is.  It’s the only place each of us can be.  The only pain I can feel is my pain.  The only pleasure I can feel is my pleasure.  If I feel pain about something that’s happened to you, it’s because I’ve come to like you, and it causes me pain when something bad happens to you. 

It’s always just my pain or my pleasure, these philosophers think.  Empathy is just an illusion, they say.  I don’t really “feel your pain.”  I feel my pain, nothing more. 

That’s their view.  I want to say straight up, living here as I do in Me-land, I don’t agree with these philosophers, smart as they may be. 

I believe I can escape from Me-land – at least some of the time.  I may find myself back in Me-land.  I may never escape for very long or get very far away, but I do think I can escape.  There is somewhere else that is not Me-land. 

That’s really why the phrase “beyond me” struck my attention last weekend and why it has stayed there. 


I hope at least a few of you remember an old TV show called “The Prisoner.”  It was a British show that first aired in 1967 and 1968 and starred Patrick McGoohan.  McGoohan was also the prime creative force behind the show.  It was just 17 episodes. 

Here’s a brief synopsis.  After resigning from his job, a secret agent is abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic Village but is really a bizarre prison. There he is known only as ‘Number 6’.  Those in charge of the Village demand information. He gives them nothing, but only tries to escape.”  In each episode, he does try to escape.  He appears to be succeeding, but each time he winds up back in this isolated, lovely village. (“No man is a number,” the Prisoner used to say each episode.)

Do any of you remember this? 

For me, this is something of an allegory of what Me-land is like.  Me-land is pleasant, but I don’t want to be confined there.  I think it’s important to escape.  I try to escape all the time.  Sometimes I think I succeed for a while.  It can feel exciting, even liberating.  However often I fail, I have to keep trying. 

I don’t believe I’ll ever fully escape Me-land, but I think I’m better for getting out as often as I can. I know I’m going to wind up back in Me-land (in the Village), but I don’t give up trying to escape. 


Where’s the door?  Where’s the pathway out?  Where’s the secret tunnel or hidden stairway?  How do I get outside of Me-land?  How does anyone? 

Actually, I’ve come to think there may be many ways to escape.  Some work better for some people; some work better for others.  (Number 6 found a different way to try in each episode of The Prisoner.)   If you want to escape and are willing to try, you have to find the way or the ways that work for you. 

Here’s one way that works for me – one pathway:  waiting worship. 

In Meeting for Worship, I try to lay down all the Me-ness.  I try to quiet the voices in my head that I know are “me” voices.  I try to lay aside the voices that are talking about my wants, my needs, my hopes, my concerns, and see if I can hear another voice – let’s call it the voice of God. 

Is it really God’s voice?  (How do I know who or what God is? I don’t know. That’s ‘beyond me.’)  All I know is that sometimes I can find another voice, and it’s not mine.  It’s a voice ‘beyond me.’  It’s more than me. 

Making friends with that voice is important to me.  Making friends with that voice settles me, makes me more aware.  Makes me (I think) a better person. 

It’s a voice that connects me.  It connects me to ‘whoever-that-voice-is’ (call it God or Spirit or Light).  But it also connects me to other people.  It helps me know them better – and in a way that’s less colored by “me-ness.” 


Do you have someone in your life who really knows you well?  Who’s honest with you, always, but always tells you things in a really tender and loving way?  I hope so.  (Actually, I’m pretty sure you do.)

It’s great if that someone is another person: a partner, a child a friend.  That bond of knowing you well, that connection, is love. 

But there’s something else, I believe, that can know each of us really well – who loves us.  That’s the voice of God I seek in worship.  That’s the voice we seek together. 

And the connection that voice makes with us is love.  Love: that’s what’s “beyond me.”

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Holding in the Light

I want to talk more about the Light today.  We Quakers talk often of “the Light.”  It’s one of our ways of talking about Jesus or God or divinity. 

There is a particular phrase that’s especially on my mind this morning: “hold in the light.”  Pretty much every week here, during joys and concerns, someone speaks of a friend or a relative who is ill and asks that we “hold this person in the light.”  Or someone going through a difficult patch asks the rest of us to “hold him in the light.”  We do that often.  Quite often we hear someone in Meeting thank us for holding them in the Light, telling us it helped them get through a difficult time. 

George Fox says, “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”  When we “hold someone in the Light,” we’re hoping, aren’t we, to lift them up out of the ocean of darkness into the yet more powerful and abundant ocean of light – into God’s radiant goodness. 

I think this “holding in the Light” is a peculiarly Quaker phrase.  Others might speak of praying for someone.  Others might pray to God to give particular attention to this particular person who is going through a tough time:  ill health or troubles of some kind. 

There’s a powerful metaphor here.  Talking of God’s love can seem a little abstract.  But talking of holding someone the Light makes it more tangible.  We can feel the Light and feel the warmth around us.  When we say we’re holding someone in the Light I have an imagine of bathing that person in Light, and I imagine that we expect or hope the Light will have a healing effect.   And we’re doing something.  We’re not just waiting for God to do something.  We’re holding someone, lifting someone into the Light. 

One reason this phrase is on my mind is because I recently had a heart attack, and a number of people – Quaker friends – said they were “holding me in the light.”  I was on the receiving end of the Light. 

I appreciated all these good sentiments. I love the image of being bathed in the Light.  But I’m not sure I really understand what it means – or rather how it might work. 

This is a stumbling block that goes back to my teens — so it’s been with me a long while.  If God knows everything, and if God shines love on everyone, what is the point of prayer?  God already knows who is in need, and God is already making a maximum effort on behalf of those in need – and on behalf of everyone else for that matter. So what is the point?  Are we really doing anything when we are holding someone in the Light?

I do see in the Bible that spiritually gifted people pray all the time: they pray for healing, they pray for guidance.  They pray for forgiveness.  Moses does it.  David does it.  I’ve grown very fond of the Psalms, many of which are prayers of David.  Even, or maybe especially Jesus does it.  Jesus teaches a simple, profound prayer to his disciples that we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus prays for guidance and for acceptance just before his arrest. And he prays again on the cross for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him.  Jesus is asking that these people, too, be held in the Light. 

The most helpful thing I ever reads about prayer, about this holding in the light business, was a book by C.S. Lewis called Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer.  Lewis tells us the point of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind.  God’s mind is something we will never understand, let alone change, but rather we should pray to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s love.  The point is not to change God’s mind; the point is to change our minds.  “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.  We are submitting ourselves and we are reminding ourselves of God’s steady and eternal love for all of us. 

I recently had occasion to read again about a very unusual episode in the history of Friends.  It’s a story told in Elizabeth Gray Vining’s biography of Rufus Jones. 

November 9 & 10, 1938:  that was Kristalnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.  All over Germany people broke into Jewish homes, stores and synagogues wreaking destruction and terror, and carrying many Jews off towards Concentration camps.  It seemed spontaneous but we now know it was a well-planned attack that helped the Nazis take yet greater control. 

In the wake of that horrible night, three Quakers resolved to make a visit to Germany.  Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnall and George Walton hatched a plan to travel to Germany, to speak to the highest ranking official in Germany to whom they could gain access, and to ask to be allowed to intercede.  The statement they eventually delivered in person to German officials stated they wanted “to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life and human welfare and to relieve suffering.”

They hoped to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and someone we now remember as a chief architect of the Holocaust.  They didn’t succeed in seeing Himmler, but they did meet with two very high-ranking members of the SS.  They made their presentation, the two men they met with left the room and went to speak with someone in higher authority, perhaps Himmler himself.  Jones and Yarnall and Walton sat in silent worship — holding the German authorities in the Light. 

In the end, they did receive permission for some Quaker relief work to go forward in the days before the Second World War broke out, and for some additional Jews to be allowed to leave Germany to safety.  But of course, they didn’t stop the Holocaust. 

In his journal, Rufus Jones described to officials with whom they met as “Hard-faced, iron-natured men.”   He didn’t think they were ‘good guys.’  They didn’t have any illusions about the character of the men they would meet.  Still, it’s hard to say what Jones and Yarnall and Walton expected.  But in her biography, Elizabeth Gray Vining said that “Rufus Jones to the end of his days believed there had been a softening and a moment of vision.”

A good deal of history looks back on this episode as an instance of profound naiveté.  A foolish gesture, one perhaps even bordering on treason. 

But weren’t they holding the SS officers in the Light? Weren’t they trying to lift up the way of love and peace, trying to lift it above the way of violence and death?  Whatever they expected, wasn’t it worth the effort?  I guess I think so. 

Reading about this desperate mission to the SS leave me wondering why we mostly “hold in the Light” those we most care about, our friends and family.  Certainly, we should hold our dear ones in the Light.  But shouldn’t we also “hold in the Light” those who trouble us most: those who seem most wrong-headed or dangerous?  Do we believe they are beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love?  I guess I don’t think so. 

As we settle into waiting worship, I invite each of us to call to mind people we think are as bad as people can be, and hold them in the light, believing that the Light, the love, can reach them too. 

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