Two Bridges in Winter

Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, bridge, outdoor, nature and waterTwo bridges spanning the Androscoggin River connecting Brunswick to Topsham.  In front is the pedestrian-only Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge originally built in 1892.  Behind is the Black Bridge, a 1909 Warren Through Truss Bridge constructed to carry rail cars on a top level and automobiles on a lower.

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How Am I a Christian?

December 1, 2018

“How am I a Christian?” is the title of an article I have in this month’s Friends Journal.  Here’s a snippet from the piece:

One of the Advices in the New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice reads “Make space in your daily life for communion with God and for spiritual nurture through prayer, reading, meditation, and other disciplines which open you to the Spirit.”

By no means do I confine this ongoing spiritual nurture to those who self‐identify as Christian. I do not doubt that many who call themselves Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus are on roughly the same journey and have much to teach me. Still, I read more from those who have identified themselves as Christians, especially those that know at least as well as I do the whole catalog of horrors. I find myself part of a company of Christians over the ages; I have elected to join a tradition of spiritual nurture. At various times in my life, Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly, C.S. Lewis, the Book of Common Prayer, Marilynne Robinson, Howard Thurman, Mary Rose O’Reilley, and Henri Nouwen (to name just a very few) have fueled my spiritual journey.

You can read the whole article here, and the rest of the articles in the issue, all on Quakers and Christianity, here.

Here’s the closing:

It is from the best of those who have called themselves Christians; it is in their company that I find I learn the most. And that is why, today, I think of myself as a Christian.

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Cathance River, November 2018


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Our True Colors

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, October 14, 2018

Driving to Meeting this morning through the reds and yellows brought on a different message than I had anticipated. “True Colors” was the phrase that rose and settled in my mind. I shelved the message I had prepared. Looking at the vibrant spectrum of colors of the fall leaves, I found myself wondering whether these are the leaves true colors? Or are the greens the true colors and these reds and yellows something odd and unusual?

We’re awash these days in occasions to wonder about a person’s true colors, especially in civic and political life. As we take in the news of elections and confrontations and scandals, we’re often left wondering what we make of this person or that one. Are they telling the truth? Are they trustworthy? What are their true colors? Do we see someone at their truest when they are relaxed or when they are under stress? Do we see their true colors in prepared remarks or when they are confronted in a Capitol Hill elevator?

In gathering to worship this morning we sang, at someone’s suggestion, “Still, Still With Me,” as one of our opening hymns. As we sang together, I noticed that the beautiful melody is by Felix Mendelssohn. He called it “Song Without Words.” And so I imagine he thought the piece’s true colors were as a melody without words. And then someone came along – that someone turned out to be Harriet Beecher Stowe – and wrote the words we sang this morning. So is this the song’s true colors?

Here in Maine we live in a place with four full seasons. We go through a long winter with the deciduous trees limbs empty of leaves. As the trees begin to leaf out in the spring, Ellen and I often quote to one another the Robert Frost poem that begins, “Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.”  In summer, the leaves turn a deep, lush green. And now in fall we have this glorious riot of colors. Which is the true color?

In my teens I came to have a deeper interest in the fall leaf turn. A good deal of my social life in high school involved working on science projects and competing in science fairs. I had a very good project in 9th grade, but I was beaten by Susie Burrell who did a project on Why Leaves Change Color. I was stunned; probably pouted a good deal. Susie was a good student and a friend, but not, I thought, the sort of person who should best me in a science fair. It especially rankled because we had the same advisor for ours projects – my Dad. How could my Dad help Susie win? I’m sure I wasn’t at my best when I lost. But the episode left me with a special interest in leaves turning color. Every fall I still think of Susie Burrell.

What’s happening as the leaves turn their colors in the fall? If we think about it, we know that the leaves are about to fall to the ground. Are the true colors only revealed when the leaves are stressed, about to die? Are the colors just a distraction, or are they a last burst of glory?

At first I learned that as the fall comes, the chlorophyll and other chemicals that make the leaves green disappears. As the green color fades, the underlying reds and oranges appear. Just this summer, Ellen and I learned something else: that it isn’t just that the chlorophyll dies off or disappears. It is that the tree withdraws the chlorophyll, to store it in readiness for the winter and to save it for the next spring and summer. If that’s what’s happening, what are the leaves true colors, the colors when the leaves are productive, or the colors when they are facing death? How about human beings?

With trees, it’s a relentless cycle, one strictly controlled by soil, light and temperature. The trees and the leaves have no choices to make. The colors simply turn from gold to green and from green to rust and red.

It is different with human beings isn’t it? We believe we have some control over our colors. We have the ability to choose when and how we show anger or frustration, joy or grief. Which are our best colors and which our truest colors?

Do we show our truest colors when we blurt something out or when we have a chance to prepare? Do we show our truest colors when our health is at its peak or when we are nearing death? Do we show our truest colors when we are challenged to do something brave or when we can calculate what’s best to our advantage? Do we show our truest colors in positions of authority or when we feel powerless?

How about our truest colors in Meeting for Worship? Do we shape our true colors in worship? If not, when is it we choose, and how? Does what we find in worship carry into our work and into our relationships with family and friends?

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Ah, to be in Paris (Maine)

Paris, Maine this weekend

fall foliage Maine

Fall colors reflect in the Little Androscoggin River Reservoir as it heads under the East Main Street (Route 117) bridge in Paris on Saturday. Photo by Russ Dillingham for the Sun Journal.  

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Looking for Lake Huron

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, September 9, 2018

Our summer vacation trip this August took us up into Canada. We spent time in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. We also went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, and we stayed at a modest family resort just west of the park where I used to go with my family when I was a boy.

We thought of this as our ‘old rocks’ excursion. Last year we went to the Pacific Northwest and saw ‘new rocks.’ Last summer we saw volcanoes of recent geologic origin in various states of formation and explosive destruction. We saw Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, and Mt. St Helen’s. We saw the Cascades and Olympic peaks, we saw lava fields and calderas. It was good; it was very, very good.

This summer, on the other hand, we wanted to see the oldest rocks in North America. There they are north and west of Toronto: the Canadian Shield. Once there had been a mountain range tall as the Himalayas, perhaps even taller: the Grenville Orogeny (Ellen taught me that). But that was a million years ago. Its rocks have been buried and compressed, folded and eroded. They don’t rise very tall today, but where the rocks are exposed you see beautiful colors in folded layers, pinks and blacks, whites and silver flashes of mica.

That’s what we saw that this summer, and it was good, just as God pronounced of creation in the Genesis story. It was very, very good.

As we planned the trip, we saw another possibility. Maybe we could see Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes. There it was, we could see on the map, just west of that family camp where I went as a boy. I’d never seen Lake Huron, or I couldn’t remember that I ever had. I was sure we never went to see it when I was a boy. So we decided to add that to our trip.

We’ll drive over to the edge of Lake Huron, we said to ourselves. We’ll see the big lake stretched out before us in all its majesty. We like big water. There’s something awesome about it, something that fills you with wonder – something spiritual.

The day came, and we set off to see Lake Huron. It’s a huge lake: the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world — about the size of West Virginia. How could we miss it?

Our first attempt was to drive to a place called Honey Harbor. (I’m not making that up.) It proved a delightful town. It had a bit of a resort feel. There were signs for marinas, places to buy or repair or store boats, places to get ice cream. We could tell we were near some big water.

But did we see it? Not really. We saw a finger of water with a few docks and a few boats. In another place we saw a marina with more boats and another finger of water. But we saw no broad expanse, just a sliver here and a finger there.

We tried again. We drove farther away from people, beyond the 45th parallel. We drove northwest on the Trans-Canada Highway, a well-paved four-lane, limited access highway. You can’t see Lake Huron from the Trans-Canadian. So we exited and turned west on a long road out towards O’Donnell Point along Twelve Mile Bay – or so it said on the map.

We drove straight at the lake –- or straight at where the map showed the lake was. We drove a very long way, mostly no cars in sight. We saw some beautiful exposed rocks. From some signs, we realized we were on land owned by indigenous peoples. Eventually we came to an enormous marina. There were hundreds of cars and hundreds of boats. There was another long, narrow finger of water on which the marina sat. We could imagine getting in a boat and going out that long finger and eventually it seemed we would get to the big water, the broad breath-taking expanse. But we couldn’t see it that day, not from where we were.

We never did see Lake Huron that day. Or, rather, we saw only little bits of it.

We realized the shoreline of Lake Huron where we were is like lace, thousands and thousands of little islands and inlets. The roads take you to places to dock or store a boat. But to see the lake in all its majesty, you have to get into a boat and go out onto the water, out some distance. You can’t go just by land. We weren’t prepared to do that on this particular day. So it was a little disappointing. We saw wonderful things, but we didn’t really see Lake Huron.

As I’ve thought about that day, its many joys and its one less-than-perfect accomplishment, I’ve come to think of the excursion as very much like the experience of my spiritual life.

Much of life, I think, is like driving on the Trans-Canadian Highway, or like driving on I-95 or Route 1. You can get somewhere pretty fast. You can deal with the necessities of ordinary life. You can get to work or to a store or to a friend’s house. But the majesty and mystery of life, maybe not so much. That majesty and mystery may be nearby, but the highway won’t take you there. You have to go looking for the big water, and you may not find it. Maybe you have to get into a boat or walk a rocky path. Maybe you have to go to Meeting.

There are many days I’m looking for the big water. There are many days I’m looking for the experience of the divine, the presence of God, the holy. More often than not I never quite see the big water. I might catch glimpses. I might see bits of water through some trees. I might see boats that maybe could get me there, but they aren’t my boats, and most of the ones I see aren’t being used by anyone. I keep hoping to come round a bend and see the big water open up. I keep hoping the next bend will give me the long view, maybe even the eternal view, and take my breath away. Most days my view of the holy is blocked by dozens and dozens of bits of ordinary life.

For all the talk of God in the Bible, there are only a few instances where God makes a direct appearance. Think Moses and the burning bush. But that only happens a few times. And most of those few instances are times when someone simply heard God’s voice. Think Noah, or Samuel, or Paul. Most of the time people are just trying to find out what God wants them to do without ever catching even a glimpse.

Quakers often talk of being seekers. We talk of seeking God. We talk of stilling ourselves, quieting ourselves, getting off the highway away from the buzz, hoping to hear God’s voice. We know it takes effort, practice, prayer, waiting worship.

What’s more, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we go through spiritual dry spells. Other times the big water, the holy, takes us by surprise. But we know, don’t we, there’s no direct route there, no simple turn-off scenic vista that promises us a view of God.

Still, I know the big water is out there. I know it is, and it’s worth looking for. It is worth the seeking. I know have to get off the highway. I know I have to go out the long peninsulas. I know I have to find ways to go out onto the water.

I’m glad we went looking for Lake Huron that day, even though we only caught tiny glimpses of it.

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Quaker Values?

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, July 1, 2018

Quaker values are on my mind this morning – that phrase ‘Quaker Values.’

Partly Quaker Values are on my mind because the last week or two – or really the last year or two – have been especially trying for me and I know for many others. What’s in the saddle in Washington, in the White House and in the Congress, are values that are not my values – not ‘Quaker Values.’

Quaker values are also on my mind this morning for another reason. We had a visit from Adrian Brody this week. He’s the newish Head of School at Ramallah Friends School. Some others from Friends United meeting came with him: Eden Grace (Global Ministries) and Dan Kashtelan (Communications).

Ramallah Friends School was founded in 1889 as the Girls Training Home. (Quakers had been educating girls in Ramallah for a decade or two even before that.) The parallel Boys Training Home was founded in 1910. Later, the two schools were joined together. Ramallah Friends School was founded by Quakers from Maine long before Israel/Palestine was a place of unrelenting strife.

It is today a remarkable school. Much of Adrian Brody’s presentation focused on RFS as a vibrant school for girls and boys, one committed to excellence in education. He described it in these terms:

  • It has a commitment to academic excellence
  • It’s graduates go on to excellent colleges and universities in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.
  • The education it provides is hands on, experiential.
  • It focuses on the whole person.
  • Ethical concerns are central to its curriculum and community life.
  • It has a real commitment to sustainability.

In listening to him, we heard many of the same terms and themes we might have heard if the presentation had been about Friends School Portland, or about Westtown School where my son Robbie attends.

Only after he had fully presented the school in these terms did Adrian pull back the focus to talk about the school in its context – the context of Palestine today. The school is in Ramallah, now a busy city just 10 km from Jerusalem. The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority are nearby. Adrian Brody talked about the Green Line, the wall that separates Israel from the West bank, the encroaching settlements. He talked about endless checkpoints for Palestinians, even within the West Bank, and about armed Israeli soldiers. He talked about frequent demonstrations and rubber bullets – sometimes, real bullets. It was painful to take in. It certainly is a challenging context for a school.

On their website it says this:

“Despite prolonged political unrest, Israeli military occupation and economic hardships today, the Ramallah Friends School continues to demonstrate the resilience and patience of the Palestinian community keeping alive the hope and vision of a better future.“

It’s also a Quaker School: Ramallah Friends School. Adrian reminded us that it is difficult to sustain this because no one on the staff is a Quaker, and there is only one Quaker family left in Ramallah. (There are frequent Friends visitors – Friends in residence. Martha Hinshaw Sheldon, from our Meeting, has been a Friend in residence there.)

So what makes this a Quaker school – beyond its having been founded by Friends, and beyond its continued support from American Quakers through Friends United Meeting? The answer we heard – and I think it’s a sensible answer in some ways is this:

The school is committed to affirming and teaching and embodying Quaker Values.

And so, towards the end of our discussion with Adrian Brody, we found ourselves talking about “Quaker Values.”

“Truth, Simplicity, Peace, Equality, Tolerance, Service, Creativity, Discipline, Justice.” That’s the list on the Ramallah Friends School website under “Living Our Quaker Values.”

That list is very like the SPICES list of testimonies that Friends in the United States often talk about: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

Where did these come from? That’s a complicated story, probably one for another day.   Let’s just note this: you won’t find this list or anything like it in any Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice before about WWII. The SPICES list is of relatively recent origin. Nevertheless, this list of Quaker Values has come to define us – or we have slipped into letting them define us.

We say, “Let Your Life Speak.” That’s a Quaker phrase I like. By it, we mean our beliefs should be active, not inert. We should live out our values, even when it is difficult – like the difficult week or year we’re having now. These Quaker Values, these Testimonies, are orientations to action.

These are values that Quakers hold. They are ones we lift up and practice daily – or at least try to. Sometimes they even seem quite distinctive, as if Friends are committed to these things even when others are not.

Take peace, for example. Our Peace Testimony, our pacifism, seems especially distinctive. Or take the commitment to equality in earlier times. Some Quakers were among the early abolitionists. Some Quakers were among the first to insist on equal education and opportunity for men and women. The gathering at Seneca Falls in 1848 to set in motion the call for women’s suffrage was largely organized by Quakers.

But where did the SPICES list come from? I like to think of it this way.

Quakers believe that God speaks to each and every one of us — if we’ll still ourselves to listen. We believe there is ‘that of God’ in each and every one of us — that allows us to hear God. And thus,

  • If there is that of God in each and every one of us, then we are all fundamentally equal. No one will be better than another.
  • We are all called to community, because we hear what God is saying better in community.
  • We are called to be peaceable one with another because all lives are sacred – all having that of God within.
  • We are all called to be truthtellers and people of integrity because we carry God’s sacred hopes within us.
  • And we are called to stewardship of the earth because that too is a gift from God.

And so we have SPICES list: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. It’s a good shorthand list – perhaps a Quaker rosary.

But — here’s the but. Are these values our values in the sense that we own them, or have a special claim on them – a claim that others don’t? Are they especially ours? Are they our brand? Is that why we call them ‘Quaker Values?’

Are these our Spices, and other people use different flavorings? Do these values make us special? Set us apart? Do they make us better? (Heaven forbid!)

If we are to let our life speak, do we think that other people’s lives should speak in different ways – upholding war or selfishness or deceit or waste? How do we expect to persuade anyone of anything if we few think we have a corner on goodness, because ours are ‘Quaker Values?’

Or are these values for everyone?

Are these values for everyone because they speak to something fundamentally right about being human, about living a good life? Some would add: Are these values for everyone who is listening to God?

Aren’t these the values of the Sermon on the Mount?

Put another way, do Quakers hold these values because they are Quaker, or do we hold them because they are the right values – right for everyone?

If they are right for everyone, and I’m pretty sure they are; if they are right for everyone because these commitments are what God expects of all us, what should we call them? Not “Quaker values,” I think.

One more question.   If we should not call these Quaker values, if we shouldn’t think that these values are what makes us distinctive, what does make us distinctive?

What makes a Quaker School a Quaker School? What makes a Quaker a Quaker?


Dilbert provides a postscript.

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