Dean Cornwell, Androscoggin River Falls, 1960

A depiction of the Great Falls at what is now Lewiston-Auburn, about 1695.

Dean Cornwell (American, 1892-1960)
Androscoggin River Falls, study for The Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine mural, 1960
Pastel and pencil on grey paper
30 x 54-1/2 inches (76.2 x 138.4 cm) (sheet)
Signed and inscribed on accompanying label: Dean Cornwell / 33. W 67th St / This is one of 9 entries I am submitting / Mural Cartoon

The artist;
Kirkham Cornwell, son of the above, by descent;
Private collection, Illinois.

Lewiston Evening Journal, April 2, 1960, p. 8., completed mural illustrated;
P. J. Broder, Dean Cornwell: Dean of Illustrators, New York, 1978, p. 131, completed mural illustrated.

On the artist’s label that accompanies this lot, Dean Cornwell states that this “mural cartoon” is one of nine that he submitted to the Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston, Maine. Of these nine, the bank chose two including the present work. According to The Manufacturers National Bank pamphlet titled “About our Murals” that accompanies this piece, the work depicts “the symbolic great Falls of the Androscoggin River about 1695 … the original source of water power for this area from which our industrial progress has been made possible. Observe how the Angroscoggins (for Anasagunicooks), an Indian Tribe of this community belonging to the powerful Abnaki Nation, spear their Maine salmon from thundering, cool clear waters. Indians from miles away fished and hunted this plentiful region and nearby the great Indian Sagamores, Warumbee, maintained his permanent village and fort. What is now Lewiston and Auburn was an important crossroads … a center from which vital trails led to other sections of the settled country. Note how these native hunters replenish their food supply before the long journey onward, and barter with the Canadian Trader who carries such a tempting meal on his gun.”

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And So We Pass from One Season to Another

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, November 8, 2020

And so we pass from one season to another. 

The leaves are mostly gone now, gone ‘til next spring, their bright colors just a memory.  The sun is down by late afternoon.  It’s growing chilly.  Mid-day there still may be some warmth in the sun, but there’s a bite in the air toward nightfall that’s there again when we greet the morning. 

It’s a great cycle of life, and I’m one who loves to live in a place that has four robust seasons.  I say this even as I know that I hate the shortening of the days.  There are pleasures, too, in fall, I know, and pleasures, too in winter.  The sun will return. 

And so we pass from one season to another. 

Sometimes seasons are human-made.  We’ve just passed out of one season with yesterday’s election announcements.  I’m sure some hearts were gladdened and others disappointed.  I’m feeling a little of both.  We’ve heard the speeches and taken down the lawn signs. 

And so we pass from one season to another.

I know all this, and yet I also feel like time is standing still, going nowhere.  ‘Every day is Wednesday’ I’ve found myself saying to distant friends for the past few months when they ask how I’m doing.  It’s true, every day is the same, and tomorrow will bring nothing new.  I already know that.  In this pandemic, it feels like someone has hit the pause button on the cosmic remote control.  Nothing moves forward.  The story doesn’t advance. 

We’re like the Israelites stuck in the desert for 40 years unable to enter the Promised Land. 

Of course this week, it seemed like every day was Tuesday, not Wednesday.  Something was supposed to happen on Tuesday.  Tuesday was supposed to be a day when the votes were all counted.  Tuesday was supposed to be a day when the we knew something about the future.  But it didn’t happen that day.  Then it didn’t happen the next or the next, and I found myself thinking it would never happen. 

I’m stuck between these two accounts.  The seasons are turning, the cosmic ones and the human ones.  Time is standing still. 

I’m trying to find my bearings, my spiritual bearings, stuck between these two accounts.  The seasons are turning, the cosmic ones and the human ones.  Time is standing still.  How am I called to faithfulness between these two accounts, these two rhythms, that each have a hold on me? 

Neither seems to be doing me anything good.  One is telling me I’m irrelevant.  Watching the seasons turn I can find myself thinking I don’t have anything to do with any of this.  I can think I have no responsibility. We’re just watchers; it doesn’t make any difference what we do.

But watching time stand still also makes me think I’m irrelevant.  Nothing I do matters; nothing anyone does seems to matter.  We’re just waiting. 

Most people who call themselves Christians follow a liturgical calendar that tells them what spiritual season we are in. It tells them what Saints days to celebrate, or what feast days s are to be observed, or what Bible passages are to be read each Sunday.  Advent leading to Christmas is a season.  Lent leading to Easter and then Pentecost is a season.  Some portions of year are “ordinary time.”

The first Quakers pretty much rejected this way of thinking or doing things.  Just as they believed no persons had special access to God, just as they believed no buildings were more sacred than any others, they also believed no days were more special or sacred than any other.  Early Friends didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter.  Friends schools were in session on those days. 

For me this goes a little too far.  I like observing the seasons – both the seasons of nature and the seasons of the soul.  I know that I should be the same person each and every day.  I know I should be caring for the same things each and every day.  But it helps me to be reminded, in turn, of various things.  It helps me focus. 

It’s very useful to me that there is a sabbath, a day each week on which I am especially called to worship with others. 

In the same way, it’s useful for me to have a season of thankfulness, a season in which we especially turn our hearts and minds to feeling grateful for the many, many blessings we have received.  Even in this time of pandemic, even in this time of polarization, I know there are many things for which I should be thankful, for which I am thankful if I’ll take a moment to notice. 

I’m grateful for the gift of life,

I’m grateful for the gift of time,

I’m grateful for the gifts of family and friends.

I’m grateful for the love that surrounds us all. 

This year I’m especially grateful that a season of Thanksgiving, a holy season, a spiritual season, follows a season of political combat.  I’m grateful to turn my focus to something else.  As the hymn we sang this morning puts it: “Come, then, thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home.” 

Perhaps that is all I should say.  But just as I know that many things have their seasons, I know that some things do not. 

I recently re-read a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Wilmer Cooper.  He was a midwestern Friend who was the first Dean of the Earlham School of Religion.  Ellen and I got to know Wilmer and his wife, Emily, when we were at Earlham. The pamphlet is titled “The Testimony of Integrity.”  Wilmer begins it by saying that for many years he had a hard time giving a short, helpful answer to the question “What Is a Quaker,” or “What Is Quakerism?”  And then he realized “Perhaps the word ‘integrity’ comes as close as any single-word answer.” A Quaker is one who lives a life of integrity.   

We Quakers speak often of the testimonies, and more often than not we’re thinking of the peace testimony or the testimony of equality.  But Wilmer Cooper says “’integrity’ is the essential Quaker testimony.”  At all times and all seasons, a Quaker is called to speak the truth and to live a life that is genuine and straightforward. 

Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice puts it this way:  “Arising from the teaching of Jesus as related in the writings of John and James: ‘Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no’, Quakers perceived that with a conscience illuminated by the Light, life became an integrated whole with honesty as its basis.”

Even as the seasons change, we are called to live with integrity in all things.  That is something we can do, each of us every day. 

And so we pass from one season to another.

Also posted on the Durham Friends Meeting website.

Posted in Message, Quaker Identity, Quaker Testimonies | 1 Comment

Is Faith Disqualifying for Public Service?

Today is the start of the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett to be a Supreme Court Justice.

I do not think she should have been nominated because we are too close to a presidential election. I do not think she should be considered because Donald Trump has shown himself not to be a person who respects the Constitution or the laws of the United States. And I do not think she should have accepted the invitation to be nominated because she must know the president has disqualified himself by his lies and wrongdoings. But in this post I want to address something else.

Does her religious faith disqualify her as a potential supreme court justice? That’s a question being asked and answered by many people. The NYTimes, for example, headlines a front page story today A Conservative Court Nominee Rooted in Faith. (The online edition has it “Rooted in Faith, Amy Coney Barrett Represents a New Conservatism.”)

For starters, I dislike the tendency of many to speak of “faith” as a strong characteristic of an individual only if their “faith” is a more evangelical or fundamentalist variety of religious belief. Barack Obama was a president of faith; so was George W. Bush. (Donald Trump: I don’t think so.) But we didn’t often hear references to the fitness of these two presidents in reference to their faith. How about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Was she a woman of faith? Perhaps.

Amy Coney Barrett definitely is a woman of “faith.” She is an observant Roman Catholic, and within Roman Catholicism has some distinctive beliefs, practices, and affiliations. How do these bear on the question of her fitness for service on the supreme court? Does the unusualness or the strength of her religious beliefs disqualify her? If so, how and why?

Let’s approach the question this way. I’m a religious person. I’m a Quaker. How does my Quakerism or Quakerness bear on my fitness for public service?

I don’t usually start with the idea that I am a person of “faith.” I find that a tricky, unhelpful word. It can lead people to think that my religiousness is defined by beliefs, and I find “belief” to be a tricky, unhelpful word. I have a commitment to truth-seeking that goes beyond secular ways because I’ve found that secular ways cannot begin to answer some of the most important questions for me — especially questions about how I shall live. I have a religious practice, or a set of practices. That’s how I think of my Quakerness: I worship with others as part of a Quaker Meeting.

My religious practice has led me to some strong commitments about how to live in the world. Quakers call those commitments “testimonies.” In company with other Quakers, for example, I’m very strongly inclined towards seeing human beings as fundamentally equal — equally deserving of our regard and care, none of us more deserving than any other.

Is that belief in or commitment to equality unusual? Maybe not; most people affirm a belief in equality. But when I am with others and matters of equality come up, I wonder about those who do not have a religious practice or set of beliefs. I know how it is that I believe in equality. I believe in human equality because I believe that God loves each and every human being. Whatever differences there may be among humans in terms of intelligence or strength or accomplishment pale before this God’s-eye view. We are all children of God. For me, that’s the basis. If that is not the basis for equality, what is? Those who are not religious may speak of “dignity” or “human rights” but I wonder what “dignity” means if not some pale description of God’s love. Or I wonder what foundation there may be for “human rights” if not some expectation of God? (If the foundation is seen as human power or human agreement, I am certain the foundation is very weak.)

What do I mean by God? I have no very clear idea. I simply have learned from my religious practice that there is a oneness deep down at the center of things, and that oneness radiates truth and goodness. As Quakers say, I know this experimentally.

My commitment to equality is sufficiently common that I do not believe others would see that commitment as disqualifying for public service. They might see a lack of commitment to equality as disqualifying. The basis of my belief in equality is, today perhaps, somewhat more unusual. Because it leads me to a commitment to equality shared by many/most others, however, I don’t think it would be seen as disqualifying.

A second matter. In company with many other Quakers, I’m a pacifist. (Here’s another view of what that means.) I refuse to resort to physical force or violence in nearly all circumstances. I’m committed to working for just and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This too, for me, is a leading that emerges from my religious practice. This is a commitment that I know is not shared by most others. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with that, not just with people disagreeing, but also with people misunderstanding what it means and with people being angry with me for turning away from violence.

Is this disqualifying? It certainly would make me cautious about accepting certain appointments. Because the United States does not have a foreign policy that foreswears the use of military force, I would not accept any role that would give me responsibility for the deployment or use of military force. My opposition would be too fundamental. How about another role, one that could never involve my being involved in the use of force. I might not be reluctant, but how about others? I can see that they might be. Understanding that I’m a pacifist could lead them to wonder how weird is he? What other strange beliefs or commitments does he have? And no matter how many questions they asked or how clear and full my answers, they might never be comfortable.

Would that be fair — for me to be set aside or rejected because of my religious belief? I think yes. It’s not because I have religious beliefs or commitments. It’s not because they are strong and firmly held. It’s because they are out of step with the predominant views of the citizens of this country. I would love to persuade more people to be pacifists. I try. But I accept the disqualifying nature of my unusual commitment.

I believe I have a right to be religious. I don’t think it would matter if I were told it was ‘illegal’ to be religious. Religious matters are more fundamental to me than civic or political matters. I’d prepared to go to jail rather than give up my religious convictions. But I don’t believe I have a right to carry my religious convictions into civic or political matters. I can’t and shouldn’t force my beliefs on others. We use democratic and constitutional means to decide the basis on which we will live together as a nation. My having religious convictions and practices carries no weight in that. In making appointments or in standing for elections, it’s fair game for people to ask what my views are and how I came to them. If they’re uncomfortable with the content or the basis of those views, it’s OK for them to reject me. Just as it’s OK for me to try to convince others that they should share my convictions.

Back to Amy Coney Barrett. I’ve already said we shouldn’t be considering her for confirmation. Trump shouldn’t have nominated her, she shouldn’t have accepted the nomination, the Senate shouldn’t be engaged in the confirmation proceedings. If we were in legitimate confirmation proceedings, however, the fact of her having strong religious views wouldn’t at all be something I viewed as disqualifying. But the content of her religious views would be a fair concern, just as my pacifism would be. How would her convictions shape her behavior as a jurist? How have they in the past? Are the convictions she would bring with her sufficiently in step with the American citizenry that we should empower her to make make decisions on our behalf? That’s a political decision, not a religious one. In no way does it wound her religious identity to have the rest of us decide she is not a proper person to be a supreme court justice.

God (whoever/whatever God is) may think us wrong, but that’s for another and unworldly court to decide.

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Aerial of Bethel, By Ben Williamson

For Downeast Magazine. Bethel, Maine, ablaze with color this week, is on the Androscoggin River.

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Dis-Union at Brooklyn Friends

[Posted 9/4/20; expanded 9/5/20]

This morning’s New York Times has an article about Brooklyn Friends School (BFS) titled A Quaker School Promoted Liberal Values. Then Its Teachers Unionized. (The print version is headlined “Quaker Values Tested As Teachers Unionize At a Brooklyn School.”) The subtitle reads “Brooklyn Friends, a private school, is trying to dissolve a faculty and staff members’ union.”

I’m sure this is causing a great deal of pain and anguish not only within the Brooklyn Friends School community, but also within the wider world of Friends.

The NYTimes article doesn’t do Brooklyn Friends any favors. The gist — as the headline trumpets — is that BFS isn’t living up to its own values. Hypocrisy in the frame. The Times does take care to link to the BFS Board’s letter to its community on the matter. It also quotes the newish head of school, Crissy Cáceres as saying “Quaker decision-making isn’t by majority rule. … “It’s an earnest process of human relational engagement that’s focused on not just what is my need, but what is our experience?”

The BFS Board is seeking to decertify the union on religious grounds. [Correction: Not decertify, but rather modify the terms of engagement allowed by NLRB between the union and the school.] It is asserting that the National Labor Relations Act cannot compel an organization to have a union, even if the employees want one, IF this will run contrary to the organization’s religious beliefs or practices. Says an FAQ circulated by the Board:

It is our belief that such a community is created best through deep conversations between colleagues, students, and school leadership, often on an individual basis, to reach unity about what it means to promote spirituality at a Friends School and then to develop action steps to implement what they conclude.  Based on our experience, we believe that a collective bargaining relationship regulated by the NLRB is inimical to the Quaker decision-making process that is essential to achieving unity about our spiritual community, and thus to providing the best education for children.   We believe unity is present in our community but out of reach until we can directly communicate with each other.

I want to pause here to say that my own progressive politics and my commitment to Quakerism arose at about the same time. After graduate school, my first position was at Temple University, chosen in part because its faculty had recently unionized. I was a faculty member — and a union member — there for nearly two decades. Over those same years (the ’70s and the ’80s) I became an attender, and then a member of the Religious Society of Friends. In the years since, I’ve grown increasingly interested in the ways that progressive political values and Quaker faith and practice sometimes walk the same roads and sometimes do not.

One of the things I wrestled with at Temple was the argument that faculty should not unionize because they participate in governance and thus are, in part, an aspect of management, not just workers. At Temple, it rarely seemed like the faculty were part of management. But at a Friends School where everyone’s voice is sought?

Mostly the world (to the extent it is interested at all) sees Quakerism as framed by progressive values. And indeed, in pursuit of equality, peace and environmental stewardship, Quakers (or at least many Quakers) can seem like one faction of a wider progressive political movement. But that way of looking at things shoulders aside the religious aspect of Quakerism. For many Friends, the religious aspect is foundational; the values (or the “testimonies” in Quaker speak) are something that grows out of that foundation.

I am no party to this conflict at BFS and I am sure there is a great deal worth knowing that I do not know. Still, I can see that the NYTimes article is not hearing what the BFS Board is saying. I’m sure that’s frustrating for them.

How does Quakerism see unions? The Times quotes Stephen Angell, professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion as saying “quite frankly, Quakers don’t have that level of clarity on the unionizing process.” He’s also quoted as saying that the Brooklyn Friends management is “a bit self serving and presumptuous” for voicing strong views about the incompatibility of Quakerism and unionization. (No one is quoted as saying those who believe there IS such compatibility might also be seen as self serving or presumptuous.) Drew Smith, executive director of Friends Council on Education, is quoted as saying that “the council had no stance on the role of unions in Quaker schools, though few schools affiliated with the organization had them.”

Were I advising the BFS Board, I’d urge them to speak more clearly and forcefully about religious practices — to frame the matter around practices rather than values.

For one thing, the values that Quakers lift up we see as universal values, not Quaker ones — and not progressive or partisan ones. It is not adherence to those values that makes us Quakers.

Rather, Quakers see themselves as committed to seeking God’s guidance in all matters, or at least in all important matters. That seeking we do in various ways, but especially through ‘waiting worship,’ stilling ourselves to be open to hearing what God is saying to us. Quakers are committed to this way of doing things even (or especially) in the conduct of business. Thus, when Quakers conduct business, they do so in the context of worshipping together, gathering, in silence to begin with, to seek God’s will.

In that silence, in order to be led by God, we need to lay down a great deal: the ordinary concerns of the day, to be sure, but also, and most importantly, our own wants and interests. To hear and to follow God’s leadings, we have to lay down our own strivings. That is a spiritual discipline at the heart of Quakerism.

It is a spiritual or religious discipline that is sharply different from the ways of the world where we are encouraged and expected to assert our interests, to voice our wants, and to contest with others to have those interests satisfied.

That is the nub of why unionization can be seen as antithetical to Quaker religious practice. Unionization is a lifting up of interests, a joining them together, a making them stronger by such connections. In the ordinary ways of this world, that may well be a good thing, a progressive thing. I certainly think it is in many places and settings. Indeed in most.

But it is not the Quaker religious way. The Quaker way would have everyone who participates in governance — and that would be pretty much everyone — strive to participate in a way that lays down rather than lifts up self-interest.

Hearing from everyone, direct, open communication: these are very good things. But they are not a sufficient description of or basis for Quaker decision-making. Everyone’s voice should be welcome, even voices that articulate strong self-interest. Religiously-based Quaker decision-making, however, should not be organized or institutionalized in a way that draws self-interest into the process; rather it should be organized in a way that asks that self-interest be laid down or set aside.

It may be hard to trust Quaker business practice especially if you are not a Friend. It may be that a Quaker school involves too many people who are not Quakers to fully adopt the practices of Friends. It may ask too much to expect that non-Friends will enter into governance by laying down self-interest. The consensus-seeking practices of Quaker business practice may become simply an exercise of patience, generosity and good colleagueship. But if so, a Quaker school will have lost something of its Quaker religious foundation. That foundation lies in organizing itself as a community to seek God’s will.

Unionization is not a road to seeking God’s will. It is a road to better balancing the contest of interests between management and workers.

Thy will be done, not my will: that is the Quaker religious way. I think that is what the BFS Board is seeking to lift up — or what I hope it is.

Two final notes. First, The Brooklyn Friends School Board does not describe the school’s decision-making process in the way that I have. Here’s what they say in their FAQ:

We strongly believe that the process of Quaker decision-making involves a commitment to authentic and open communication between individuals as well as groups within the BFS community. In that communication we collaboratively seek creative solutions and engage in deep listening with humility and respect to reach unity on concrete ways to move forward.

For me, this is a good statement as far as it goes, but it does not really give an account of how and why unity might be achieved. Authentic and open communication are very good things but they may lead to further conflict. For Friends, the assurance of unity comes from a confidence that we can seek and find God’s will. It does not come simply from a good-hearted exercise of listening to one another and finding a way to satisfy all the disparate interests that are expressed. Seeing Quaker process as reconciling disparate interests can work much of the time, and is surely how many Quaker organizations view Quaker process today. But it strips Quaker business process of its religious grounding. That religious grounding provides a much stronger basis for finding unity.

Second: after the NYTimes article appeared, Friends Council on Education issued a longer statement. That statement was preceded by a note that the single quotation from Drew Smith in the article had been taken from a much longer interview and that the single quote had been “taken out of context.” The Friends Council statement has this to say:

Quaker beliefs on equity and justice often lead Quakers to take politically progressive positions on the issues of the day. These positions lead Quakers to generally support organized labor. Organized labor clearly makes a difference in our society by lifting the wages, benefits, and protections for all workers in our country. 

The negotiating practices of unions are, however, in tension with the decision making practice of Quakers. Unions work to support and lobby on behalf of one side of the labor/management divide. One of the most critical truths of any Quaker community is that we do not see or treat one another as adversaries. How should a school rightly resolve this tension?

Focus on this sentence in the statement: “We do not see or treat one another as adversaries.” That is an important declaration, one true to the faith and practice of Friends. The statement also says: “there are no ‘sides’ in this practice, only a hoped-for outcome that achieves unity for a particular Quaker community.”

But how do we avoid ‘treating one another as adversaries?’ That is where the religious grounding of Friends practices becomes important. We may be adversaries (or appear to be) when we are living our ordinary lives. But not when we are standing before God. There is a basis of unity and harmony, we are sure, but that understanding comes from a confidence that there is a god (or a spirit) of truth and goodness that can be found and relied upon if we will seek it together. That makes all the difference.


Here is the entire Friends Council on Education statement (9/04/20), distributed via email but not yet on their website:

A Message from Friends Council Regarding Brooklyn Friends School

Every Friends Council member school operates under its own governing structure that determines its own path. Friends Council’s mission and work does not include taking a position on whether or not a school’s workforce should be unionized.

Friends Council does seek to help all schools acknowledge and embrace the tensions between the peculiar practices of Quakers and the practical realities of the good management of Friends schools.  In fact, much of our work involves helping schools think about their governance and spiritual structures and practice.

One of the most unique of Quaker practices is the way in which we make decisions. This practice is the result of translating what Quakers believe spiritually into a practice that honors both the individual Light within all of us and the health and well-being of the full community. One of the most important aspects of this decision making practice is that it is non-adversarial; there are no “sides” in this practice, only a hoped-for outcome that achieves unity for a particular Quaker community.

The hierarchical authority structure at Friends schools stands in tension with the full practice of Quaker decision making. Friends schools work constantly to ensure participation in decision making across constituencies and individuals, while providing clear definition about how particular decisions are being made.  At our schools, we embrace this tension by making clear the process by which a particular decision is made and inviting opportunities for critical voices to be present. This tension exists in every Quaker school community, unionized or not.

Quaker beliefs on equity and justice often lead Quakers to take politically progressive positions on the issues of the day. These positions lead Quakers to generally support organized labor. Organized labor clearly makes a difference in our society by lifting the wages, benefits, and protections for all workers in our country. 

The negotiating practices of unions are, however, in tension with the decision making practice of Quakers. Unions work to support and lobby on behalf of one side of the labor/management divide. One of the most critical truths of any Quaker community is that we do not see or treat one another as adversaries. How should a school rightly resolve this tension?

It is our hope that Brooklyn Friends School can find its way forward as a community.  We appreciate and embrace all of the relationships that we have with the Brooklyn Friends School leadership, teachers, and staff.  We hold all constituency groups of the Brooklyn Friends School in the Light as they seek a way forward through this current time of conflict.

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Six Things We Have to Offer

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 2, 2020

Cooped up like this, what do we have to offer?

Most of us are living a closed-in, closed-down life.  We’re waiting for this strange time to pass.  And by ‘strange time’ I certainly mean the pandemic, but I mean more than that:  I mean what’s been unleashed in public life in recent years: corruption, bigotry, violence. These also can put us back on our heels, sheltered, for safety.  The pandemic requires me to stay apart from others, but the bigotry, violence and corruption can lead me to cower in a bunker, shut up in my house, waiting for it all to pass. 

Sometimes it feels like a strange dream: this is not my country; this is not my world.  But I know that it is my country and my world.  Waiting it out, cowering: these are not what I should be doing, or certainly not all that I should be doing.  It can feel like I don’t have much to offer – or that we don’t have much to offer.  It feels like I just have to wait it out – all the bad stuff.

But on second thought I think we do have things to offer.  That’s what’s on my mind this morning.  What Have We to Offer?  I’ve been making a list.  So, six things we have to offer– and I’m sure this is a partial list. 

1.  Durham Friends Meeting has been important to me during this strange time, and likely to you as well.  We’re all limited in how much we can spend time others.  We have to stay distant from one another.  But every Sunday we’re able to gather with one another, even if it has to be in this unusual electronic way.  That’s one thing we have to offer: We can smile at one another.  We can care for and comfort one another.  We can encourage one another.  We can be friends, good friends.  This is something pretty much any community in the world can do, but it’s one thing we who belong to Durham Friends Meeting can do. 

2.  Durham Friends Meeting can do more because we are a religious community, a Quaker one.  We can (and we do) reassure one another that there is more – more to life than we experience with our senses.  We can reassure ourselves that that there are things we cannot see or touch that are nevertheless real and important. Life is not just selfishness and power, no matter what we see in the news.  Some people just don’t see it or get it that there is something more beyond selfishness and power. 

Here at Durham Friends Meeting, we can help one another develop ‘new eyes for invisibles.’  That’s a Rufus Jones phrase I’m fond of.  For me and perhaps for you that awareness of ‘invisibles’ is the foundation of religious or spiritual experience.  We strengthen our new eyes for invisibles better in community.  

This ‘something more’ we can help one another find has to do with understanding ‘what matters’ and with ‘doing the right things.’  We do this for one another at Durham Friends.  And truth be told, religious communities all over the world do this, too: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Jain, Buddhist and Ba’hai.  It’s good we do this and it’s good that others do this, too.  It’s hugely important.

3.  Here’s a third thing we can offer: “Jesus has come to teach his people himself.”  In this community, Durham Friends Meeting, we know God will speak to us if we still ourselves and listen.  God will give us comfort.  Even more, God or Spirit will show us the way.  What an amazing thing this is that we have to offer. 

We’re not alone in the bunker.  We’re in this together, and we’re in it with God.  This idea that God speaks to us in the present: that is a very special thing that Quaker Meetings have to offer.  We should take advantage of this gift, and we do.  And we should share this gift with others – as often and loudly as we can.  We have a Teacher with us, always, to give us insight and courage, reassurance and encouragement.  So this is a third thing we have to offer.

4.  And here’s a fourth thing we have to offer, one we grasp when we truly grasp God will speak to us in the present.  We can remind ourselves that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now.  Of course it doesn‘t come automatically; it’s ours to build, this Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s not easy and not quick; it will take persistence and courage.  Still, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in some distant future, the Rapture or the Second Coming, something in the unknown future. 

We’re not waiting; we’re building.  We remind ourselves of this, and if we’re on our game, we tell other people this.  This understanding that the Kingdom of Heaven is really here, now, is a tremendous gift that Quakers offer the world.  If we’re really on our game, we show them this.  We join with others in building the beloved community. 

These second two, that God speaks to us and that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand:  these are the terms on which we gather today, for worship and care of one another.  So, what more do we have to offer?  I’ m sure there are many more, but I have two more things on my list of six this morning. 

What do we hear when we listen to God?  These are where we Quakers also have something more and unusual to offer. 

5.  The understanding that God speaks to us in the present embraces every single one of us, not just some people or special people.  We proclaim that God loves us all equally.   Not that we’re all the same; we all have different gifts.  But we proclaim the possibility that God can speak to and through each and every one of us.  This is something very important that Quakers have to offer.  What’s more:  God asks us to love one another equally – or as equally as we are able. 

      It would be wrong to say that Quakers have been steadily forthright and always consistent in proclaiming this equality in God’s love.  We have faltered at times.  But when you look at struggles for equality in race and in gender, in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, in the struggle for giving everyone the vote, in the struggles for affirming the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples, we see Quakers have had something to offer.  And now there’s more work to be done; we have more to offer.  Lots of people speak of equality, but we know the deep foundation of equality – God’s love for us all.   

6.  In the way that God’s love works on us, we can find a sixth and very special something we have to offer.  God doesn’t make us do anything.  God never forces us.  We’re free to do any stupid or selfish or cruel thing we want.  And sometimes we give in to the worst in us.  Instead, God works on us through love.  God calls us to bring out the best in one another through love. 

This, too, is a gift Quakers have to give:  We proclaim that love is the way; that force doesn’t really work.  Violent policing is destructive.  War is not the answer.  “Let Us see what love can do,” said William Penn.   Let us live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars,” counsels George Fox. 

      So my quick list of six things we have to offer:

  • Confidence we can comfort one another,
  • confidence we can grow new eyes for invisibles,
  • confidence that God speaks to us in the present,
  • confidence in the Beloved Community,
  • confidence that God loves us all equally, and
  • confidence that love will find a way.

These are not just beliefs we have to offer.  They are prompts to how we should act in the world.  Our testimonies of equality, community and peace, of simplicity and integrity: these are gifts the world needs very much right now.  These are gifts that have been given to us, and very generously by God.  They are gifts we have to offer – and should offer in abundance. 

We can take these offerings for granted.  They may come too easily to us.  We need to remember them when we feel like cowering or just sheltering in place.  Nevertheless, we mustn’t be shy or withdrawn.  We have things to offer – to one another, to our neighbors, to Mainers, to Americans, to the world. 

We have much to offer.  Let us be generous. 

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Camille Corot, River With a Distant Tower, 1865

Metropolitan Museum of Art

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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

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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.

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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. 

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