All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Thu, 12/27/2018 - 3:48pm

So we’re hearing some complaints about sniping back & forth between “theists” and “non-theists in some liberal Friends meetings. I have some thoughts on that. Kind of a long read . . . .


Let me work up to them with a story, going back to the turn of the years 1990 into 1991. I was working for the Post Office, as a Mailhander, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. I mainly shuffled bundles and sacks of mail back and forth across the floor of a facility about a quarter of a mile long. It processed several million pieces of mail every day. In those years, I had real calluses on my hands, and a lot fewer pounds around the middle.

I was also surrounded by veterans there, mostly from the Vietnam era, who had preference in Post Office hiring. We weren’t very familiar with the phrase PTSD then, but it was all around me. I felt a lot of solidarity with them, though I didn’t know how to express it. I was an Anti-Vietnam veteran, had protested one way and another all through those years, and bore my own set of scars from it.

November & December at the Post Office were always hectic: Christmas meant a continuing flood of packages, mandatory overtime, and running us off our feet. But the year 1990 brought a big additional burden of stress: the buildup to the First Gulf War, what’s known as Desert Storm, was in full swing.

I’m starting these reflections with a war story, not because I like war stories, but as part of my own grappling with the fact that when I look back over my 76 years, my life as an American and a Quaker has been dominated by war.

Big wars, punctuated by smaller and more secret wars, and then periods of tension and preparations for more war. I’m not sure that many Americans, and Quakers, really take adequate account of that over-arching reality: any American my age and younger has lived in a militarized, war-making country all our lives. And  that reality doesn’t appear to be changing much today.

August 5, 1990.

Anyway, I remember when the Gulf War buildup started, in late summer 1990, when the first president George Bush learned that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, next door. My memory of Bush is that he was riding in the presidential golf cart, and pulled it to a stop where some news cameras were clustered, and said, “This will not stand. This will not stand.” (Actually, an old video shows him saying that after stepping out of the presidential helicopter. At least I got the words right.)

Reporters shouted questions, but he waved them off with a curt, “I gotta go to work.” 

He had sounded clumsily florid; as most of us knew, he was no orator.

But I also knew in my bones that Bush meant it. He was “going to work” to plan a war, a big one.

Benches in the Stillwater Meetinghouse, Barnesville Ohio, site of a certified prophetic Quaking experience for me. There’s a plaque marking the spot. (Kidding about the plaque.)











The conviction stayed. In fact, a few days later I was in a worship session at Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting, in their big stately old Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, and I was moved to speak — the whole thing, feeling shaky, reluctant, but pushed.

I rose and said I had been shown there was going to be a big war soon, and that if anyone in the room believed in what Friends call the Peace Testimony, they would soon have occasion to show it, and in ways that might be costly.

I went home from Barnesville resolved to follow my own counsel. If the government was  going to have a war, the least I could do was protest. So I got involved in planning a one-day Quaker peace conference in Washington, on the same weekend as a huge antiwar  march was scheduled. We were hoping against hope there was still a chance that citizen resistance might stop the rush to war.

As an event, the conference was a success: we packed the Florida Avenue Meetinghouse in DC. We had lots of workshops, fiery speeches, we fed everybody, cleaned up, and kept the fee low yet covered all the expenses.

A crowd estimated in the tens of thousands makes its way down Market Street in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 19, 1991 while protesting the United States attack on Iraq and Kuwait. The crowd was heading to an afternoon rally outside City Hall. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Of course, our gathering made no difference as far as stopping the war was concerned. The epidemic of war fever, ginned up by the government, using slick PR agencies to feed atrocity propaganda to a subservient media, kept spreading. Many people, as I soon learned, were becoming increasingly hostile to dissent.


At work, we often wore tee shirts under our shop aprons. I made a shirt with big bright letters on the back, which showed up clearly in my work apron: “No War For Oil,” it said. “One Vietnam Is Enough.”

I wore it a couple of times. Then the third time, within an hour after I’d clocked in, a union steward came up and beckoned me into a quiet corner.

He told me I had to change the shirt. I asked why. He said it was pissing some people off — some of the Vietnam veterans. They thought I was mocking them and dissing their service and their buddies who didn’t make it back.

I protested. “Hey, I respect those veterans, I’m not mocking them, and I’d be happy talk to anybody about it.”

He said, “Look, you don’t understand. This is not a discussion group.”

Then he leaned closer, dropped his voice. “I mean,”he said, “you’re not safe wearing that shirt here. You’re not safe.”

It began to sink in. Of course. Old traumas were being deliberately stirred up and triggered by the drums of war fever and propaganda, swirling and echoing all around us. It was like a rising, threatening wind.

And there was more than just propaganda: preparing a mass invasion is a huge undertaking. A Friend who was in the Army then, told me her part of the war was figuring out how to ship about ten thousand trucks, big and small, from the U.S. mainland to the Persian Gulf.

Also, several hundred thousand soldiers and reservists had to be brought together, given last-minute training, crowded into planes and ships headed for the Gulf. Once there, they had to be fed and bedded down in big tents in the desert. Field hospitals were set up in more tents. Bombers and fighters roared overhead, keeping constant watch; along the coast dozens of Navy ships were assembling.

With this rumbling maelstrom in the background, my tee shirt, despite my high-minded intentions, looked like the enemy to many of the troops and veterans around me. Too many.

I won’t kid you: I didn’t want to get waylaid and beaten up somewhere in the vast parking lot outside. And beyond worries for my own safety, I didn’t want to feed my co-workers’ reflexes about enemies. I wasn’t the enemy of those haunted veterans — or an enemy to the new recruits preparing for their first deadly combat.

So I changed my shirt. Which helped my physical safety, but didn’t calm my internal turmoil, or that around me. This war, most of us worried, was going to be horrible. There were stories of the army secretly packing tens of thousands of body bags on ships headed for the Gulf, to be filled with the corpses of American casualties.

Even after our conference and big march, there were still voices against the war — I remember the Pope, John Paul II, who was no liberal, loudly denouncing it as unnecessary and unchristian. But he was ignored just as the rest of us had been ignored and belittled. They wanted their war, and they were going to have it, come hell or high water. And soon enough, they did.

NYTimes: “Pope John Paul II delivered a scathing denunciation of the Persian Gulf war today, calling it a ‘darkness’ that he said had ‘cast a shadow over the whole human community.’ ‘A choice was made of aggression and the violation of international law, when it was presumed to solve the tensions between the peoples by war, the sower of death,’ he said in his Easter Sunday message, ‘Urbi et Orbi’ — ‘To the City and the World.'” IV

At that time, my work weekend came on Monday and Tuesday. But of course my meeting, Langley Hill, not far from CIA headquarters, met First Day mornings.

The Post Office was supposed to make a “reasonable accommodation” of my religious observances, so they let me split my Sunday shifts: clock out in time to drive to meeting, then hustle back afterwards, and stay later to make up the time.

It meant a long day, but I did it. And I found myself feeling more urgent about it as the war buildup neared its peak, and several weeks of bombing Iraq began, as a prelude to a massive ground invasion.

I remember driving to meeting on many First Day mornings then, listening with one ear to the latest news about the buildup, and the flickering debate about it.

But there was more than talk. In the other ear it felt as if the drumbeats of war had morphed into a kind of invisible hurricane roaring around me and across the land, all feeding and reinforcing the momentum speeding us to war combat and its awful, unforeseeable consequences.

When I pulled into Langley Hill’s parking lot, I felt surrounded by this cacophony as I walked to the meetinghouse door, stepped up, opened it, and walked through.

And then something amazing happened: The hurricane stopped. Or rather, it continued, but was somehow shut out, kept at bay, quieted.

This was welcome, but very strange: Langley Hill’s meetinghouse was not a fortress, just a small converted Methodist chapel; white clapboard outside, with a steeple: Langley Hill Friends had weighed the stand against “steeple houses” against the expense of taking it down; thrift prevailed. Inside the meetinghouse was suitably plain, long sturdy benches facing each other, cream-colored walls, and a small Clerk’s table.

Yet in this small, unreinforced space, the outside hurricane of war was silenced. Or maybe more accurately, absorbed into the silence.

I can’t explain this, but it happened many times in those days. Spoken ministry was rare, and usually quiet; I don’t remember calls to the antiwar barricades; worship here felt more like largely unspoken mourning for those already harmed in Saddam’s invasion, and for those who would be harmed by the impending invasion, and of the unmasking of our powerlessness in the face of it.

For me, these morning intervals of quiet were religious experiences. They’re in the same category with visions and angels bearing supernatural messages, things I’ve read about in other sources. A visitor might not have noticed anything special, beyond a subdued group of Quakers in gloomy silence; and that would be true enough. But for me it was not the whole truth: those times beyond the grip of the hurricane were more of a lifeline.

These brief periods away from work were something closer to miraculous. I remember thinking, or maybe it was praying, that I had never been so grateful to be a Quaker, among Quakers. When meeting was over, and I passed through the meetinghouse doorway, the hurricane resumed.


Looking back, it’s clear that in an outward sense, Langley Hill didn’t “DO” much about the war. Some Friends helped with our conference and other protests; but others were not “active.” They related to our situation in different ways.

I remember one of these “non-activist” Friends in particular. His name was Herbert Brown. He was old, stooped, and retired, likely from a white collar civil service job. He was a very quiet man, whose family had long been part of the Orthodox branch of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which had reunited with the Hicksite branch about twenty years earlier.

Not long before the war, Herbert Brown began to show up at the meetinghouse several times a week. He became its volunteer janitor and handyman: sweeping, dusting, cleaning, fixing.

He did this quietly, with only occasional help from others. He kept doing it as that long winter of our discontent folded into a bleak spring. Soon the war was officially “won,” and was followed by weeks of jingoistic victory celebrations.

A small stretch of what was called “The Highway of Death” in Iraq, where U.S. bombers and artillery killed thousands of Iraqis.

Trying to ignore them, I reflected on the experience of how important the respites from the hurricane of war had been for me. As I did that I also became more conscious of Herbert Brown’s low-profile presence  in that.

I talked to him about it a couple of times. He quietly made it clear that he felt led to do this seemingly menial work, and that it needed to be done. I got the sense that in years past, he had likely filled other slots, maybe more visibly weighty ones: Finance Committee, clerkships and such.

But now, those were in the past. Yet he was hardly useless, or marginalized: he was caring for the meeting house, I realized, in order to care for the meeting. (As in turn, the meeting had cared for me, one of those Friends who could be identified as an “activist.”)

Even more, he understood something about such work that was only beginning to dawn on me. Especially now, looking back, I’ve concluded that if Langley Hill, and other Friends meetings, had any real contribution to make in our crazy world, it would grow out of the combination of these varying leadings in them.

I also learned another thing, in bits and pieces: Herbert Brown had cancer. I forget what kind. It was somewhat in remission, but considered incurable. I screwed up my nerve one day and asked him about it. He answered plainly and calmly that yes, he did have it, the cancer was not curable, but he was “resigned,” and well enough to do his janitorial/handyman work. He planned to keep doing it as long as he could. It was his leading.

And he did do that. Eventually his strength failed, and he took quietly to his bed and died.


Here in sum, I think we can see, or at least I think I can see, that this time of war was also for me a time of learning about the various roles Friends play in meetings and in witness. I don’t know if the pattern I saw is visible to anyone else, though I think I have observed it in other meetings and individual Friends.

There’s a fancy theological term for this pattern: it’s our ecclesiology, our sense of the basic structure and dynamic of a religious community. I think I can summarize this, if the jargon isn’t too complicated, in one line, and the line is this:

“All god’s critters got a place in the choir.” Or: “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir — even if they’re non-theists in an unprogrammed meeting that doesn’t have a choir.”

(Don’t ask me to sing that song; but I hope it’s familiar.) Here’s a version by Makem & Clancy.

Sometimes that “place” is quite visible: the Clerk presides at business meetings; the Treasurer handles the money. “Activists” talk in acronyms and are busy trying to change the world.

For others, the role is less clearly defined: for instance: who was it that upheld the remarkable atmosphere in worship at Langley Hill, during those awful months when I needed its shelter so much? Was it those who believed most in prayer? (We didn’t talk about that a lot.) Not to mention those who taught First Day School with my children and others? And how much came from Herbert Brown, with a broom in his hands and a screwdriver in his pocket?

If you’re new to a meeting, or to Quakerism, you might ask: how do you find your “place in the choir”?

Good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. Personally, I think I’m a slow learner: not a birthright Friend, raised Catholic and come to Quakers in my early twenties. I began attending in 1966, about eleven years before I came to Langley Hill. For the first ten years I was mostly in a student or apprentice mode: learning; reading a lot, attending meetings, protesting the Vietnam War, absorbing things.

I didn’t join many Quaker committees then, or donate money to the meetings. But I don’t feel very guilty about that: I was poor and struggling professionally too, and I figured, if my situation ever gets better, I’ll do my bit; and eventually it did get better. So also eventually, I ended up on many committees.

In fact I’m now part of the “Quaker Retirement Plan”: no money, just committees till you drop.


Because my profession turned out to be journalism and writing, my first real meeting responsibility was related: I became editor of Langley Hill’s newsletter. One thing led to another, and I’ve been editor for numerous other Quaker projects since. (That also led to the Post Office, since writing for and about Friends never has paid much.)

And that writing background had another important aspect: traveling along Friends, I soon noticed that there were many events and issues that were live and contested among Friends, but which were rarely discussed in Quaker publications. With my journalist’s hat on, these issues looked like stories that needed to be reported and discussed, maybe debated. (Some would call all this “discernment.” Some others might consider it stirring the pot.)

But with my meeting member’s spectacles on, I saw pretty clearly that the institutional pattern was mainly to avoid talking or writing about them, and playing these matters down, especially the difficult ones.

I resisted that pattern, and that resistance initially made me a failure as a Recording Clerk, not once, but twice: at Langley Hill, and then at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I wrote minutes that were intended to be useful to Friends far into the future, as a detailed window on our history. But enough living Friends in both groups strongly objected to that kind of minute-taking, clearly preferring notes that were brief, oblique, sanitized and became all-but completely opaque within a few years.

So I yielded to the will of the body; that is, I was fired.

That  is, by the way, one effective way to learn it’s time to find a new place in the Quaker choir.

After a bit of  experimentation, I started my own Quaker publications, which examined many subjects, including some of the tough ones. For instance, at the first national Quaker gathering I attended, in 1977, the issue of recognizing the presence of gay & lesbian Friends (trans were not on our radar yet) came up suddenly and explosively, and I ended up writing an article about it that was pretty widely circulated.

A Friendly Letter, a monthly independent Quaker newsletter that began in 1981, and continued til early 1993. It was first prepared on an antique instrument called a typewriter, but soon moved to a computer. In 2004 it resumed as a blog.

Since then I’ve written about many other Quaker concerns, including plenty about the wars. But I realized two years ago, in 2017, that I have been writing about LGBT issues & struggles among Friends for forty years. 40 years! (And those issues are still far from being resolved.)

I don’t apologize for that work, but I can say I didn’t mean to do it; as an old straight guy, I’m no expert; but most of what I reported on, would not have been written about otherwise. Yet these are community struggles, and I’m convinced that silence on such matters does not serve us or the Spirit.

The rise to visibility & inclusion of LGBT Friends in many Quaker spaces, and their continuing exclusion and erasure in others, is much too big a piece of our recent history to ignore; it ought be studied and told by many; but it really hasn’t been yet.


So I did the best I could; and along the way, there have been a few other “religious experiences” that came at crucial but unexpected moments; but those are another story. And while I’m slowing down with age and trying to retire, these and other issues (especially the wars) are still very much alive among American Friends, and in Quaker groups elsewhere. And the experience of being comforted and encouraged in very hard times by sitting in meeting has returned often in the past two years.

But it hasn’t all been gloom & doom.  I’ve published two books of Quaker humor; I like Quaker jokes;  and they’re a survival tool. Yet as I said earlier, my American Quaker life, now in its 53rd year, has been lived in a time of nearly constant American warmaking. And in that record, I can see the truth in the biblical warning from Galatians 6:  “Be not deceived: God is not mocked. A man (or a country) reaps what they sow.” And as part of the harvest of our military wars, Americans are in continuing domestic conflict on numerous fronts, even among Friends.

If dealing with such struggles makes a Friend uncomfortable, it’s relatively easy to hunker down in a cozy, like-minded meeting and ignore most of them, and maybe that’s the right path for some. (I write that last without being convinced.)

But such cocooning doesn’t make the struggles go away. And sooner or later, one or another of these conflicts may well come knocking on your meeting’s door; and then, for instance, the blessed sanctuary that Langley Hill was for me in 1990 and early 1991 can all-too quickly dissolve into a faction-ridden catfight or worse.

In fact, some years after I left the DC area, Langley Hill started a Quaker school, with high hopes and a dedicated committee. But that project failed, and ended with the school closed and some Friends in court against others.

I don’t know the details, and wouldn’t burden you with them if I did. But I will repeat that the Society of Friends today exists within a larger society and culture that is riven with very deep conflicts, reaping what we have sown, and various aspects of these conflicts afflict many Friends & meetings too. I don’t know how to solve those, or how to escape them. I do have ideas about how to work on some of them, and have done my imperfect best.

I’ve also learned that Jesus’ time was like ours, only worse; do you remember where he ended up? And if you read a serious biography of George Fox, you’ll see that he and the first generations of Friends faced such internal travails as well.

So as I said, for me it took some time, more than a decade, among Friends, to find my place in the choir, and my broadest leading, centered on writing, in which specific other leadings have taken shape, in changing circumstances. And even then, specific leadings can and have changed. Further, some of my most important leadings were ones that I at first rejected and struggled against.

Even so, my basic message still stands, that among Friends, “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir.”

Let me expand it a bit: you may have to seek, perhaps for years, to find your place. You might even have to struggle to claim it. Or have to invent it, and even stand fast for it. And then, due to “stuff happening,” sometimes positive, sometimes not, and as a consequence of further leadings, your place can change. 

And that’s not to mention that the “choir” may not always get along or sing in perfect harmony.

Nevertheless, “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir.” That includes you, if you stay with it. And if you don’t remember anything else that I’ve written here, I hope you’ll hang on to that motto. Then find or make your place, stick to it, yet be ready to move when the time to change places comes.

If you find this post helpful, please pass it on.


The post All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Nuturing ministers: Case studies

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Mon, 12/24/2018 - 11:04am

Brian Drayton is starting a new series of historical examples of Quakers giving ministerial advice and training:

As I am working on a revision of my book on the Quaker ministry, I am revisiting historical accounts of times when a minister was given guidance (eldering, oversight, nurture, discipline). As part of that work, I will from time to time post “case studies” on this blog.

Nuturing ministers: Case studies, Intro

As I am working on a revision of my book on the Quaker ministry, I am revisiting historical…

Amor vincat
Categories: Blogs

Ho. Ho. Ho? How The Grinch Is Stealing Christmas at Earlham College

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sun, 12/23/2018 - 7:04pm

You read it here last August:

“At Earlham College, it’s going to be a tense Christmas this year, especially for faculty and staff.

That’s because, whatever goodies Santa brings, the Grinch will be close behind, snatching away the good cheer and hopes for a happy new year in 2019. . . .”

And this week, Mr, G. will indeed be out there, prowling the streets of Richmond Indiana. And he’ll be delivering pink slips.

The trigger was pulled Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. The Earlham College Board of Trustees adopted a plan, in preparation since late summer, that will cut Earlham College’s budget by 12 per cent, or $4.3 million (to $45.7  million total), and result in elimination of 12 staff positions, a reduction of five more staff jobs from full to part-time, and the ending of 11 visiting faculty positions: 28 in total.

It is the eleven faculty who will be getting pink slips from Mr. G. By college regulations, the bad news must be delivered, preferably in person, by New Years Eve. (The plan was announced in an email letter from the Board on Friday Dec. 21, which was also the Winter Solstice. The staff cuts will be made official by February 15; rumors that this date was chosen to spoil Valentine’s Day as well were unconfirmed.)

[The full text of the December 21 letter is  at the end of this post.]

From one perspective, the cuts were a big success for the faculty: they protected all the school’s tenured & tenure track professors, and turned back the Trustees’ earlier call for $8 million in cuts.

But for how long? The Board was careful to point out that this batch  of cuts was not the end of the matter. Their original $8 million target for cuts, almost 17 per cent, was not forgotten.  To reach that higher number would likely have meant adding some tenured names to the pink slip list. (We explained in the August post how the Board can get around tenure, by abolishing entire majors or departments.) And the December 19th letter was explicit that this option was still on your the table:

“It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.”

To my southeastern ears, that sure sounds more like “when,” rather than “if.” They then added, under the heading “Future planning”:

“The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation. . . .

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

“Financial sustainability” is the key phrase here. The Board’s analysis of admission and income trends views Earlham’s present path and staff/faculty configuration as “unsustainable,” requiring much more drastic restructuring (and job cuts) to stop the bleeding.

A concrete example of where “financial unsustainability” leads can be found by looking east, to Boston. There Wheelock College, after 131 years “merged” last June with Boston University, shrinking from a freestanding college to a department in BU’s ed school. And when the merger” was done, 111 employees, more than half of its almost 200 faculty & staff, were laid off.

How did this happen? One report said: “Schools like Wheelock have experienced a perilous cycle of shrinking enrollment and rising costs over the past decade. . . .

That spiral — of rising costs and shrinking enrollment — is common at small colleges colleges across the country.

Michael Horn, an education consultant based in Boston and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, puts it this way: pit “significant increases in tuition, year over year over year, against the reality that middle-class wages have largely been stagnant.”

Horn anticipates that many such schools could end up merging, closing or going bankrupt in the years ahead. “Forty percent of colleges in this country have fewer than 1,000 students — I think all of those are at grave risk,” he warns. [Emphasis added.]

Earlham’s recent enrollment is barely over a thousand.

An informed Earlham veteran advised me last week that another big factor in Earlham’s plight is that it gives away a great deal of scholarship aid, which has cut down its net tuition revenue to dangerously low [aka “unsustainable”] levels.

So one “fix” likely to be in the mix for the Round Two plan is a substantial reduction in scholarships and raises in tuition.

Such reductions might yield a jump in net tuition income. But then again, maybe not: perhaps enrollment would fall, as prospective  students take their tuition money and look for better bargains elsewhere.  Wheelock raised tuition; it didn’t save them.

And there’s another wild card the Board did not mention in the December 19 letter, but which I bet has been on all the Trustees’ minds since then: the stock market’s rapid slide. Just three months ago, as the first round of plans were taking shape, the market was riding high, seemingly  promising continued steady growth and income from endowments.

Last August, Earlham estimated its endowment at $438 million, up from $425 million in 2017. The school had been drawing on its endowment to cover operating deficits (“unsustainably,” said the Trustees).

But as of last week, all the year’s growth in major markets had been abruptly and completely erased, and more chaos was in the forecast. The Christmas Eve fall of 600+ In the Dow Jones Indexwas one for the record books. Could the markets be heading into a new crash like that of September 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Who knows? But uncertainty hangs over us all, including colleges living on or near the edge. Wheelock College saw its endowment tank in 2008, and it never recovered.

Can Earlham pull through this time of uncertainty? I make no predictions, but here’s one somewhat upbeat footnote: I am reliably informed that these financial problems have not affected the Earlham School of Religion. Or at least not yet.

ESR has a separate budget, which is currently deemed to be “sustainable.” (Of course, seminaries have their own problems, involving shrinking church attendance and finances, which means fewer job opportunities for their graduates. But that’s another story.)

And in the meantime, there’s the Mean One, on the loose.


Full text of Board letter, released in Friday, December 21, 2018

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, the Earlham Board of Trustees held a special meeting on campus to consider some time-sensitive issues. Following is a report on the meeting.

Presidential search

The trustees heard an update from the Presidential Search Committee, and they approved a slate of semi-finalists who will be invited to participate in preliminary interviews in January. Finalists will then be invited to visit campus for interviews in early February. The committee will share feedback on those interviews and a recommendation for next steps during the Board’s meeting on February 9-10, 2019.

Financial sustainability

The trustees received the president’s recommendations for a budget reduction for the 2019-2020 academic year. (This was in response to the Board’s direction in June to reduce the 2019-20 expense budget to $42 million, which would be about an $8 million reduction from the current year’s budget.) More than 20 teaching faculty, administrative faculty and staff attended the discussion with the Board. Trustees heard reports from committee conveners on the processes that led to the recommendations, and asked questions to which teaching faculty, administrators and staff members responded.

After a robust discussion, the recommendations were approved. The resolution will reduce the College’s operating budget by nearly 12 percent, lowering our annual expenses by approximately $4.3 million. After this reduction, the College’s operating budget for the 2019-20 academic year will be about $46 million. We consider this a positive step toward long-term financial sustainability, but we must continue to find ways for the College to meet this important strategic goal.

The Board expressed its gratitude to the Teaching Faculty and Curricular Working Group, the Administrative Budget Reduction Team, the Cabinet and the President for their hard work, thoughtfulness, perspectives and advice on the budget reduction process. Trustees acknowledged that they had given the College a very challenging task and that the recommendations are difficult and, in some respects, unwelcome to some in the community. They believe that what they have approved will help the College address its financial challenges while staying true to its core educational mission.

The budget reductions approved by the trustees touch every area of the College. We will eliminate 12 administrative or staff positions, most of which are vacant or will be vacated as a result of our voluntary early retirement program. In addition, five administrative positions that are currently full-time will be reduced to part-time.

We will also not be renewing the contracts of some visiting faculty members, many of whom were hired on one-year contracts. In total, the size of the teaching faculty will be reduced by 11 positions. Most are visiting positions that were scheduled to end this year. In addition, two retiring faculty members will not be replaced. All searches for tenure track and visiting positions that are currently underway will continue. These reductions will change our student-faculty ratio (currently 10:1) to 11:1. The recommendations did not call for the elimination of any tenure or tenure-track faculty positions.

Visiting faculty members whose contracts will not be renewed are being informed this week. We feel that it is important to share this sort of information in person, when possible, and it is necessary to do so this week since the Faculty Handbook stipulates a deadline of December 31, 2018 for non-renewals for visiting faculty. Administrators and staff whose positions will be reduced to part-time will be notified no later than February 15, 2019.

It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.

Future planning

The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation.

The first step in this effort will be the creation of a framework for a curricular plan, developed by the faculty, that will articulate the core values of an Earlham education and offer the world a compelling value proposition.

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability, but that it is also steadfast in its desire to offer an exceptional educational experience to a diverse group of students with a diverse and committed faculty and staff.


The post Ho. Ho. Ho? How The Grinch Is Stealing Christmas at Earlham College appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

A Free Book Download on Quaker Bible Study: “A Respondent Spark”

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sat, 12/22/2018 - 3:20pm

For ten summers, 1984-1994, I led workshops on “The Basics of Bible Study” for the Friends General Conference Gatherings. They were lively and well-attended, highly rated on evaluations.

Putting my thoughts together for it, I produced a handbook. The title was “A Respondent Spark,” which was taken from a quote from Robert Barclay’s early Quaker theological treatise, “The Apology for the True Christian Divinity”:

“In the Scriptures God has deemed it proper to give us a looking glass in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers. There we find that our experience is analogous to theirs….

This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God’s ways and his Spirit upon them. We know this from inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and his work in our hearts….

Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners. Yet…they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule…for… according to the Scriptures the Spirit is the first and principal Leader.” [Emphasis added

I’ve had some requests to see this handbook, and have resurrected it from my hard drive as a PDF. It is located here, and can be freely downloaded.

I’m conscious of its limitations: I’m not a trained Bible scholar; and the text is several laps behind recent biblical scholarship. Even so, there are some ideas in it which may be of continuing relevance.

Certainly the sections in it introducing the work of literalist biblical interpretations, and some of the nefarious ways these ideas were then being put to work in our society and politics are not obsolete. Some of the names are different, but the key issues are much the same.

Yes, the Bible DOES teach slavery. But it also brings images of and hope for liberation.

For that matter, some of the names are much the same too: I wrote about Jerry Falwell’s so-called “Moral Majority” and its [mis]use of the Bible. There’s still a Jerry Falwell at work today, but his view of the Bible as a political battering ram is not much different from that of his late father. And then there’s Franklin Graham; lord help us.

Still the book was not and is not about politics, except incidentally and when it’s unavoidable. (Alas, there was too much of that unavoidable stuff going around these days; and in these days too; sorry.).The book’s main goal was to answer a query:

Is This the Book For You?

This brief handbook is for certain kinds of people:

First, people who don’t know much about the bible, but think they would like to.

Second, it is for people who are independent-minded, and prefer to form their own judgments rather than simply accept the pronouncements of a traditional authority, no matter how venerable.

Third, it is for those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity because, as we shall see, one thing the Bible doesn’t offer is easy, automatic, simple answers.

This book is also for people who want a practical approach. There is, of course, much more to this subject than could possibly fit into these few pages; but it is my hope that when you have finished it, and become familiar with the tools it describes, you will be able to pick up the Bible, begin to make sense of what you read, know where to get more information about it, and not be afraid of following your leadings about its meaning wherever they may lead.

Beyond the personal benefits it offers, the ability to find your way around in the Bible is of particular value these days, when groups who claim to have the exclusive, true understanding of Scripture are running around attempting to impose their understanding on everyone else, or else.

In case you missed it — you really didn’t. Didn’t happen.

I happen to think that these groups are mostly wrong, especially about what the Bible means. But I don’t think their efforts can be effectively blunted except by people prepared to meet them on their own ground, that is on the basis of knowing something about what the Bible says and how to figure out what the text means.

So if you’re wondering about Bible study, give it a whirl. Did I mention that it’s a FREE download? No registering, no information sought, no facial recognition, and I won’t sell your data. (Some web prowlers might come and snatch it; but can’t help that.)

If you’re interested, check it out, and I welcome feedback.

The download is here.


The post A Free Book Download on Quaker Bible Study: “A Respondent Spark” appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Humor in Religion

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Thu, 12/20/2018 - 2:22pm

I’m a little nervous soliciting Quaker humor but it’s become part of my job description… Friends Journal is devoting a whole issue to “Humor in Religion” next April. The writing deadline is January 7. A frightfully serious list of things we’re looking for is below.

Writing Opp: Humor in Religion (due Jan 7)

Magazine ISO legit funny Quaker joke, apply here.

Friends Journal
Categories: Blogs

Thoughts on Quaker Storytelling: A Crucial Art & Witness

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Thu, 12/20/2018 - 11:35am

Renewing the 
Art and Witness
of Quaker Storytelling

Let’s talk about storytelling, specifically Quaker storytelling. To do this right, I’ll also tell a couple of stories before I’m finished; that will come in due time.

While good storytelling is entertaining and fun, I believe it is also important, serious religious business. I think this is especially true for a group like the Religious Society of Friends. This goes for Friends of all ages, not just the kids in First Day School and the adults who teach them. It’s also important – very important – for our outreach, and our witness, including peace witness. The stories we create and preserve and enact and pass on are very significant parts of our personal and communal lives.

For a religious community, stories have a great deal to do with establishing and preserving their identity as a people. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Exodus, for instance, when God tells Moses to paint blood on the doorposts so the angel of death will pass over the firstborn sons of the Hebrews, God also commands him to make the remembrance and telling of the Passover story a perpetual tradition among the people.

A Seder plate, which summarizes the story this annual ritual re-enacts.

That defining story of calling and liberation is still retold by Jews, some 3000+ years later, every spring at their annual Seder ceremonies.

Many scholars and sages say that the maintenance of this tradition has had much to do with the survival of the Jewish people through their long, often difficult history, and I think they’re right. And of course for Christians a few days later there’s the story of Easter, which has at its heart the retelling of the equally defining gospel narrative about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But why do I say storytelling is particularly important for Quakers?

A World War Two CO sketch

To get an answer, let me tell a brief story. We’ve just seen in the case of the Passover and Easter how stories can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But this one is about how stories can die: I found that out talking to an older Friend who had been part of a very exciting and important protest action by Conscientious Objectors during World War Two.

I was very eager to talk to him about this protest; I had seen brief secondhand accounts: a group of COs assigned to a big Cleveland mental hospital discovered widespread abusive care and management corruption there. When they blew the whistle internally, they were threatened with jail. But they stood their ground, and . . . .

These snippets were stunning. And this Friend, I learned in the early 1990s, had actually been a participant in the Cleveland action; his “testimony” would be firsthand, full –I hoped– of the kind of details that enrich retellings. I couldn’t wait.

Finally the day came to interview him. He welcomed me with a big smile, I set my tape recorder turning — and soon found he had forgotten everything about his Cleveland experience. Everything except that, in his words, “. . . it was really something.” (This was his entire account, verbatim.)

I said this was a story; but in the passage of fifty years, it had shrunk to a tantalizing, incomplete anecdote.  It confirms George Fox’s early charge to us to “let your lives speak.” Lives like the one of Cleveland and those of many other exceptional Friends can speak for generations, principally through the stories we remember and tell about them. But the stories of even the bravest witness can also die.

(For many summers at my yearly meeting, Baltimore, we interspersed business with reflective reading of memorial minutes, telling of the lives of Friends who have died in the previous year; these times, when lives that are mostly otherwise unheralded can preach, have been for me some of the most moving and instructive moments of our sessions.)

It’s also important to point out that Friends are a people of limited resources: We do not have huge numbers; we do not have vast wealth; and we do not have many members in places of power to protect us with the arm of the state (and when we do, they often end up, as in the case of Richard Nixon, more a problem than an asset.)

Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison

But there is one thing with which Friends are plentifully endowed, and that is good stories. From Fox on Pendle Hill, to Mary Fisher facing the Sultan; from John Woolman visiting the Indians unarmed, to Elizabeth Fry going alone into the stinking prisons of England; even that of the defiant Cleveland COs (think of your own favorites….)

“Popeye the Quaker Man” — a short-lived a short-lived promo for oatmeal; First Day school protest killed him off. Srsly.

Many of these stories reflect the fact that when Friends have most faithfully been Friends, and borne our Friends’ testimonies, this faithfulness has often enough been misunderstood, or has gotten us into trouble. Even today, if we don’t face overt persecution, our heritage and witness are typically ignored by the larger culture, and misunderstood or distorted when they are recognized. (Does anybody here remember “Popeye the Quaker Man”?)

Thus it is important for us to find and preserve and tell our own stories, because at bottom, Quaker stories are countercultural, even many based on our readings of the Bible and other ancient sources: in key respects they run across or against the grain of establishment religions and culture, and their stories.

The best Quaker stories can still be countercultural today, even if most American Friends are nondescript middle-class in our way of life, and the government isn’t currently hunting us down as abominable heretics.

The U.S. Military understands the power of stories – in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, the Army has built a large Airborne museum, to tell (and shape) stories of 80 years airborne and special forces warfare. As I have learned, this museum (and the 300+ other war museums in the U.S.) is not only, or even mainly about the past: not really. It is more about shaping how Americans think of and visualize the past – and apply what they think to the future. (Quick quiz: after 300-plus years of American Quaker peace work, how many PEACE museums are there in the U.S., telling a story that challenges those of the War Museums? Hint: the answer is less than three.)

Romance? “The dissolute Duke of Jervaulx is brilliant at both seduction and writing scientific papers — which he does with a blind Quaker mathematician. But when he’s left speechless and straitjacketed by a stroke, it’s up to the mathematician’s daughter, Maddy Timms, to see that there’s still a man inside the restraints — and to reconcile her Quaker faith with her growing love.”

I’m hardly the first Friend to discover the value and plentitude of our stories; and not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition of Quaker storytelling, mainly in print. Early Friends used stories of the persecution they faced in efforts to persuade kings and governors to end it, often with much success. And once the Society was accepted and settled into the quietist period, Friends used stories to pass on and reinforce Quaker values and practices to their children.

To show you what I mean about how early stories are different, I’m going to reproduce here a story from the oldest Quaker storybook I could find at the Friends Historical Library, a volume entitled, Piety Promoted. It was published in 1802, deep in the Quietist era, and some of the stories are considerably older. The 1802 volume was popular, and was followed by numerous successor volumes

This story is the first in that book, and it was meant to be read to children eight and nine years old. I ask that you listen to the story as if you were hearing it with two different ears–one the ear of a child to whom it was read, and the other the ear of a parent who wanted to read it. And ask yourselves, What were the parents saying in this story? And what were the children hearing?

Here’s the story.

(NOTE: This is the complete text, but I have broken up the original paragraphing into shorter blocks, and inserted a word in a few places for clarity. The story has no title.)

Mary Post, daughter of Benjamin Post, and Elizabeth his wife, of London, was of a tender spirit, sober behavior, religiously inclined, and a lover of plainness in habit and speech, and kept to it; but a disliker of pride and finery in apparel.

When she was but about eight years of age, being at a neighbor’s house who desired her company (being solid and grave) and had a daughter about fifteen years of age, who loved her, and to whom this child said, ‘Anna, what signify these fine things thou hast on, they will not carry thee to heaven?’

To which Anna answered, ‘Pride is not in the things, it is in the heart.’

To which [Mary Post] replied, ‘But if your minds were not proud, you would not wear them.’

She also said to her mother, that she much wondered at the great pride she observed in some young ones who professed the truth, adding, ‘I hope I shall never be like them.’

Her mother thereupon said to her, ‘I hope thou wilt never be like them; but be an orderly child, that thou mayst be in favour with God.’

At which [Mary] wept, and said, ‘If I should love fine things, I must alter much: what signify fine things when folks come to die?’

Hearing some boys in the street taking God’s name in vain, she said, ‘They take God’s name in vain enough to frighten one.’ On a certain occasion she said, she should delight to go to meetings.

The day before she was taken ill, her mother sending her out on an errand, and her brother being newly come out of the country, she desired him to go with her, which he refused; at which she stood by him awhile, and then with a solid countenance said, ‘Wilt thou not go with me? It may be, the next time thou comest up, thou mayest not have a sister to go with,’ as if she had a sense of her death.

And in that sickness she often said, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, give me a little ease;’ and lifting up her hands, repeated such like expressions, and said: ‘I had rather die than live; through mercy I am not afraid to die; I shall go to rest, were I shall feel no more pain.’

Her mother, standing mourning by her, the child looking upon her said, ‘Mother, do not cry, let us be contented; the Lord can lay me low, and he can raise me again; if I were dead he can raise me again.’ Then she repeated, as before, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, or convenient, give me a little ease;’ and seemed earnest to die and go to rest.

Her mother said to her, My dear, why art thou so earnest to die? The Lord can ease thee of thy pain, and give thee life.’

She answered, ‘One must once die, and if I recover, I must, or may, be sick again; and I had rather die while I am young. If I should live til I am older, the devil may tempt me to be naught[y], and I might offend the Lord. I am no afraid to die; through mercy I shall go to my rest: If I live, I am satisfied; and if I die I am satisfied. I am willing to die; I had rather die than live.’

Her mother said, ‘I shall dearly miss thee.’

[Her daughter] replied, ‘I am willing to see my little sister and [my] brother.’

Her mother said she would send for them: ‘but,’ said her mother, ‘if any alteration should be before thy brother come, what wouldst thou say to him?’

[Mary said] she left him the little money she had, and some other things to her father, mother, and two sisters.

Her mother desiring her to take something that was prepared for her, she seemed to refuse and said, ‘What signify doctors and apothecaries, if the Lord please to take one’s life?’

A little before her end, she lamented folks taking pleasure, and not considering the love of God. The last words she was heard to speak were, ‘Dear Lord God Almighty open the door,’ and so sweetly departed this life, the 12th of the Eleventh Month, 1711, aged above eight years.

This story is worth some reflection before we pass on: What did you hear in it? A preoccupation with death and dying? A practical way of coping in a time when many childen died young? An obsessive concern with long-abandoned Quaker “peculiarities”? Middle class Victorian fastidiousness masquerading as religion? A lack of plot?

What does this story tell us about Friends in 1802, or 1711? What do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? Would you be ready to read it to a group of 8-9 year olds in a First Day School class? Why or why not?

(Incidentally, all the other stories in this edition of Piety Promoted and its successor volumes were similar in theme and “plot.”)

In the nineteenth century, John Greenleaf Whittier retold many early Quaker stories in verse. Here is a sample, from one I always liked, “The King’s Missive”:

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

UNDER the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.

He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about,
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
Earnest and honest, a man at need
To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,
He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal
The gate of the holy common weal.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’ . . .

This story tradition has continued into our own time, of which more later.

Many of these early Quaker stories reflect a worldview rather different from our own, and in some ways alien to it. I believe we can find useful food for reflection in such stories, as well as an impetus to consider how we are doing at preserving and telling the Quaker stories of our own time.

There’s no shortage of material. Perhaps the most familiar title is The Friendly Story Caravan, published by Pendle Hill. It has been in print in various editions for more than seventy years. As I have read them, these stories were not all of equal quality; some seemed sentimental; some, I discovered, had actually falsified history in pursuit of making a pious point – not, it must be admitted, a new phenomenon in religious literature.

Even so, these books deserve credit: they told Quaker stories to several generations.

But it seems to me that there’s something of a gap since then. Our storytelling efforts seem to have dwindled in the past generation or two. Where, for instance, are the stories of COs in World War Two – I mean stories which ought to be familiar to most well-informed Friends? Or those of Quaker COs during the Vietnam War – of which I am one? Have any of us heard any of those? And most of us have been told about Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad; but what about the Quaker men and women who took part in the modern civil rights and feminist movements? There were plenty of them; where are their stories?

One story I heard some years ago was told by the woman who lived it, Marion Anderson, a Friend from Michigan. It was hilarious as well as audacious, because it described how she managed to walk right in on a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and give them all antiwar leaflets, much to their surprise.

I’m not talking here only about children’s stories. Adults need these stories too, told in adult formats. Today, adults may need them even more, because we’re so fully immersed in an amnesia-inducing mass media culture. But many of these stories, I’m afraid, are at serious risk of being lost. They are not being told, or even collected. And to lose them , I submit, would be a tragedy, it would mean losing part of our Quaker identity.

I’m not surprised that this is happening; we live in a culture where mass media shout at us constantly, and draw us remorselessly into their orbits. They are designed to keep us fixated, mesmerized, long enough for the marketplace they serve to sell us more and more goods. They work constantly and effectively to drown out and shut out the still, small voices that have something different to say. (And that’s not  even to mention politics.)

Of course, you know all this, so I won’t belabor it. The result is that not only Quaker stories, but the stories and identities of a great many smaller, even somewhat countercultural communities are being eroded, ignored, lost.

The process is analogous to the way species disappear as the rain forests are cut down to make hamburger wrappings. And I believe that those non-mainstream communities which fail to act to discover their own stories, to preserve and tell them, will not long survive, except as museum pieces.

One of several memoirs by Jessamyn West: a classic, in my view.

Fortunately, we have not been entirely without adult storytellers dealing fictionally with recent events; I think of Jan de Hartog’s memorable  trilogy of novels (The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, and The Peculiar People) , Stanley Ellin’s suspense novel Stronghold, the works of Jessamyn West, Daisy Newman’s Kendal series, and mystery novels, one series by Irene Allen, set at my old stomping ground, Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts; and Edith Maxwell, one of whose historical series is set in Whittier’s hometown, and includes the poet as a recurring character.

Feeling as I do, you will not be surprised to learn that, being a writer, I have written a number of Quaker stories, and hope to write more. Some of these stories are aimed at children; but others, including my own two Quaker mystery novels, are very much aimed at adults.

Volume 3 of Edith Maxwell’s historical Quaker mysteries.

But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, Quaker storytelling is too important to be left to Quaker writers, especially novelists. Fiction writers need the true stories as raw material. And in our communities, we shouldn’t always wait until someone is dead before trying to sum up their life preaching in a memorial minute. I hope some among the Friends who might read this, as way opens, will take time to seek out and record the stories that can be found right nearby, in your own meeting community.

Capturing these stories is not really difficult; you don’t have to be a novelist or writer. Here are some suggestions:

Talk to people, especially with a tape recorder in hand. Or while taking detailed notes. Ask lots of questions. Keep listening, and keep asking. Don’t worry about how it sounds; get it down first. Transcribe the tapes if at all possible; audiotape deteriorates faster than paper.

Collect photos, documents, news clippings. Few things are as ephemeral, or as interesting.

Store these collections carefully. If your meeting doesn’t have a safe place for them (and few really do; the top shelf of your Recording Clerk’s closet does NOT count), ask the local historical society, or even your state archive. There are also several fine Quaker libraries with archival collections whose curators would probably be thrilled to have them: I am personally familiar with those at Swarthmore, Haverford, Guilford and Earlham Colleges, and there are others.

Oh yes, perhaps most important–enjoy yourself! Gathering, processing and retelling these stories can and should be fun.

While you’re having your fun, remember that you’re fulfilling a function that is crucial to the long-term health and preservation of your religious community. I hope you will not let the noise and intrusions of mass culture lead you to neglect it.

Adapted from a Workshop at the
Friends Schools Day of Peace, Philadelphia,
Fourth Month 4, 2004

The post Thoughts on Quaker Storytelling: A Crucial Art & Witness appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

2019 FGC Gathering workshops announced

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 12/19/2018 - 9:22am

It’s that time of year: FGC’s announced the workshop listings for its annual Gathering, starting at the end of June at Grinnell College in Iowa.

There are 48 workshops to choose from this year, which is about the normal number for recent years. I used to look back and the biggest year I could dig up was 2006, when 73 workshops were offered. Gathering attendance has dropped since then but I also suspect 73 selections were a bit ambitious. The current normal is more suited to the Gathering size. There are lots of familiar workshop leaders. Are there any that stand out for you? Fell free to drop recommendations (or promote your own workshop if you’re doing one!) in the comment section.


Workshops offer Gathering adults and high school participants the opportunity to be immersed in a topic with other…

Friends General Conference
Categories: Blogs

QuakerSpeak Staff Picks

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 12/18/2018 - 1:59pm

What’s your favorite QuakerSpeak? To celebrate the QuakerSpeak video series’ fifth anniversary, project director Jon Watts asked the Friends Journal staff to pick their favorite videos. What would be your favorite QuakerSpeak?

Friends Journal Staff Picks — QuakerSpeak

In celebration of QuakerSpeak’s 5th anniversary, we put together this playlist of some of our favorites here at…

Categories: Blogs

A Space for Doubt

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 12/18/2018 - 9:34am

Features on Friends Journal this week, Jeff Rasley’s article on “stealth worshipers” and religious doubt in the professional clergy:

Because I went to seminary, I came to know quite a few Christian ministers. As an attorney, I represented several churches and Christian ministers in legal matters. Several ministers of Protestant denominations and two Catholic priests came clean with me about their personal beliefs. I discovered that when they were not “on,” many pastors would admit to the same doubts about the dogmas and superstitions of their churches as I had about mine.

December’s issue is on Christianity and there are opinions on various sides of the issue but Rasley’s piece gets right to a core strength of Liberal Quakerism: its ability to so easily invite and engage with those unsure of their beliefs. Because of family, I get to a lot of non-Quaker services a lot and wonder how many of the people around me aren’t following their church’s teachings on various issues. One way of ordering Christian denominations is to see if they prefer a tidy and pure but small congregation or a messy big tent come-as-you-are congregation.

It seems like Quakers are taking something of a different path: come but follow your own integrity and engage in the way that honors whatever level of truth has been given you. It’s a pretty powerful stance, though of course it gives us our own special set of headaches when it comes time to speaking in a collective voice.

A Space for Doubt

When religious services are stripped of doctrinal claims, doubters and skeptics can participate with greater integrity.

Friends Journal
Categories: Blogs

British Friends survey on diversity

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 12/18/2018 - 6:28am

From Britain Yearly Meeting:

What ways are we already diverse? Where do our strengths and weaknesses lie in terms of inclusion? Both these questions need to be answered if we are to understand the nature and make up of this old and important faith community that has a history of significant contributions to British and international equality.

This intro document leaves me little unsure what kinds of diversity they’re looking for. Demographic? Spiritual? Geographic? The one quote suggests that someone hopes the results might help advance their agenda. Is this just a one-off SurveyMonkey or will there be more to it?

Diversity: where are we now?

​Quakers in Britain are taking part in major a survey that is set to map the diversity of…

Categories: Blogs

A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sat, 12/15/2018 - 4:49pm

Except for how it turned out, I hate almost everything about this report:

A mass school shooting was foiled on Thursday, December 13; that’s the good part.

College students and adults too: warning booklet, in a college dorm room at a large Quaker conference.

But the first thing I hate about it is not in the news, but in myself: when I began checking the evening  headlines yesterday, a thought came:

Isn’t it about time for another big mass shooting? How long has it been—? Let’s see . . . the Pittsburgh synagogue, hmm. Oh yeah, late October: 11 dead, six wounded. . . .
Seven weeks ago; right? So  . . . another one is about due . . .”

Yes, I thought that, unbidden, and I hate that I thought it. A premonition? I don’t think so. It’s just that after these past few years, it does feel like there’s some sort of gruesome rhythm to such events.

The new ABnormal.

Then I glanced at the BBC News feed, and there it was:

Thursday morning December 13, an Indiana teenager allegedly grabbed a rifle and a pistol, and forced someone to drive him to a school less than a mile from his home. Five hundred-plus students were inside.

Meantime, somebody (later confirmed it was his mom) called to warn the school. Staff there ordered a lockdown, which seems to have been completed just in time.

The cops were alerted and also got there in time; and though the boy shot his way into the building, he heard resource officers in pursuit and soon felt cornered in a stairwell. He fired at the officers, they fired back, and then he was found in the stairwell dying of a gunshot wound, reportedly self-inflicted.

It was all over in about three minutes.

No students, teachers or police were hurt. Again, the good part.

The attacker’s name was Brandon Clegg. He was 14. The school superintendent said he was not a student at the school, but went vague about whether Clegg had ever been a student there..

It was a very close thing.

If the cops had taken a few more minutes . . . .

If the lockdown was slower or less complete . . .

It’s great that those pieces fell into place.

But at the same time, I hate it, because it’s like the World War Two air raids during the London Blitz, when civilians learned to rush to the Underground when sirens blared, and wait out the bombing runs in dark tunnels. Some Londoners didn’t get to the tunnels til too late.

American kids today are being trained to act like they’re targets of an enemy blitz, and with good reason.

Except now the “enemies” aren’t foreigners, but typically their own schoolmates or neighbors, almost always males.

We’re at war, with ourselves; and I hate it.

A very close call: If the driver had gone a little faster . . .

If the warning call had been ignored or had touched off a panic . . .

This incident happened in Richmond, Indiana, a small Rust Belt city on the Ohio border. At the Dennis Intermediate School there.

I hate that too, because one of Richmond’s distinctions is that it’s a Quaker city, one of the American centers of this sect, my sect, outside its largest in Philadelphia. It’s twice been selected as an All-American city.

Not that Quakers run the city today, or make up the bulk of its population. But Quakers founded it, and many Quaker institutions are there. And Quakers presume ourselves to be apostles of peace, injecting an irenic influence in public life.

Yes, Quakers are known as exponents and models of peace, and that’s not only in our own humble estimation. We’ll tell you about our Nobel Peace Prize at the drop of a bonnet. (Okay, it may be getting a little dusty, since it’s from 1947, seventy-plus years ago, but so what?)

We took the prize.

This is a very comforting self-image; we congratulate ourselves about it at every opportunity.
Me too. So I hate when its illusory character is exposed, even if it’s only likely to be noticed by other Quakers. And few events reveal our hollowness more nakedly than when this present American war of any against all erupts in or near our own back yards.

Our own back yard? Take a look:

A “Quaker Back Yard”: This whole incident took place in an area of about one square mile.  Within this mile, there were two sizable Quaker meetings, a Quaker college, a Quaker seminary, and arguably a Quaker neighborhood. In addition, the target school, David W. Dennis Intermediate, is named after a Quaker Congressman who was born in Richmond, lived there all his life, and whose father was president of (Quaker) Earlham College in the 1930s and 1940s. There are other Quaker institutions in Richmond as well.

I mean no criticism of any of these groups, or for that matter the late Congressman Dennis.  What would I do in their place? Nothing as skillful as the teacher who ordered the lockdown, or the officers who had practiced for such events. And the area’s Quaker presence did not protect a school named after a Quaker. The data confirms a comment by the city’s chief of police:

“If this happens in Richmond, Indiana, it happens absolutely anywhere,” Chief Jim Branum said. “If you had told me 30 years ago that we would have to train officers on entering into a school after a shooter, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Believe it, Chief. Depending on the definition, there has been a mass shooting in the US almost every day in 2018. (My internal sense of their frequency was way low.) Richmond Indiana almost joined the roster, except for well-trained resource officers, a quick lockdown, and a mother’s desperate phone call.

Speaking of mom, as the BBC report put it, “Police say tipster saved countless lives” in Richmond.

I believe it. Almost six years to the day earlier, Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook, Connecticut foreclosed that possibility by shooting his mother, before he headed for the school where he blasted his way through a locked door, then killed 20 students and six adults.

This is not abstract for me: I have grandchildren in school in three states. Besides, schools are hardly the only targets of this internecine guerrilla war: it also breaks out in big cities and small towns; churches, a synagogue, yoga studios, outside a Vegas casino, restaurants, a newspaper office, community colleges, a self-service car wash,  a gay nightclub, and lots more.

What are we Quakers, and others who don’t have a peace prize to flaunt, going to do about this war that can break out anywhere, and can’t be traced to some foreign enemy?

Beyond just facing up to it, I truly don’t have a clue. And you know, I really hate that.

David W. Dennis Intermediate School

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Categories: Blogs

Friends Seminary – Fired Teacher Will Return

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Fri, 12/14/2018 - 4:53pm

A normally reliable source has furnished me a copy of a letter from the Principal of Friends Seminary (or FS)  in New York City,  announcing that “In late January we will welcome Ben Frisch back into the classroom.” (I called FS to ask about it; as of this writing, there was no response.) The full text of the letter is below.

If you don’t know, Ben Frisch is the Quaker teacher at Friends Seminary (“the”, as in THE only Quaker teacher almost a year ago, when this story began), who was abruptly fired last March.

He  got the boot after making a clumsy joke in a geometry class about how his raised arm, illustrating an obtuse angle, was like a “Heil Hitler” salute.

Frisch is about as far from being “Nazi friendly” as you could want. Although he’s a longtime Quaker, his ancestors were European and Jewish, and some were lost in the Holocaust. He doesn’t need a “diversity officer” to brief him on all that. Nevertheless, he was canned within a couple weeks. In a letter to students, the principal, Bo Lauter, wrote, “Our students know that words and signs of hate and fear have no place at Friends . . . .”

But in fact there was much more diversity of view at FS about whether Frisch’s obtuse angle quip constituted “words and signs of hate.”  Frisch’s firing set off a firestorm: petitions on his behalf were signed by hundreds of students, and hundreds of alumni (after all, he had taught at FS for 34 years without any complaints; he knew lots of alumni). There was even a sit-in.

The incident also caught the attention of some big outside media. The New York Times ran a substantial article about the case in February, then followed up on the tumultuous aftermath with a long cover article in the “Education Issue” of its weekly magazine in September.

The New York Times Magazine cover. Ben Frisch is at the right.

In fact, some militant critics, mainly parents, called the joke “inexcusably offensive,” One mom told the Times of Israel that “I would have been gravely disappointed if the school had kept him, and would have been extremely unhappy and uncomfortable to have my child in that classroom next year.”

Yet a columnist for the same paper retorted that  “At the same time an adherence to the values of forgiveness and restorative justice that institutions like Friends promote would seem to demand a path — reprimand, rehabilitation — other than firing someone who made people uncomfortable.”

All this for a freekin’ Obtuse Angle!

One FS graduate, Emily Kelton Owens, was even more eloquent, in a commentary published by the New York Daily News:

“I graduated from Friends Seminary in 1995. I have been absorbing the coverage around the school’s termination of teacher Ben Frisch over an impromptu, insensitive joke in which he said “Heil Hitler” to his class.
While the joke was in poor taste, I am more concerned by Friends’ reaction. Their decision to dismiss Frisch contradicts the school that I loved and helped to raise me from ages 6 to 17.
Frisch, a widely respected member of the Friends faculty, dedicated his 34-year career to educating and bettering the lives of his students rather than pursuing a Ph.D. in geochemistry. There was no kinder or less intimidating teacher than Ben Frisch.
It has been reported that Friends’ principal fired Frisch as part of his pledge to make “students feel safe.” . . .
Friends made me feel safe not by shielding me from uncomfortable situations, but by giving me the tools to navigate through them and by teaching me compassion to address hard situations in a mature manner.
Two aspects of my Friends education have stayed close to my heart 23 years after graduating: First, students had a voice. In keeping with the school’s Quaker heritage, each day of high school started with a meeting for worship, business, or announcements, all of which provided platforms for students to speak their minds or often to lead the conversations. . . .
How, as was reported, did the principal “not consider the ‘Heil Hitler episode’ a close call” when two-thirds of the high school’s student body forgave and even signed a petition urging the school not to terminate Frisch? . . .
I am now a mother of two and am fortunate enough, in large part, due to my Friends education, to be raising children in a small, paradisiacal town in Southern California where the biggest excitement revolves around little league games. . . . While I wish [my children] a generally conflict-free childhood, my personal experience at Friends taught me that it’s navigating my way through uncomfortable situations that empowers me to face adversity and hopefully make compassionate decisions.
There were many ways the school could have made Frisch’s mistake a teachable moment. They could have taught forgiveness of a beloved, kind teacher who was better than his worst day of a 34-year career.
With the approach of Yom Kippur, which signifies a time of forgiveness and new beginnings, I wonder why, if I, a Jew who received a Quaker education from first grade through college, can forgive Ben Frisch, Friends’ administration was unable to do so.

All very well, but the administration wasn’t having it.

Fortunately for Frisch, he was more than simply a nice-guy Quaker teacher with a long, clean record. In addition to the student/faculty petitions which garnered 700 signatures for him, he’s also a union activist.

Yes. FS teachers have a union. And the union sprang into action.

Frisch’s firing ended up before a labor arbitrator, who held a hearing in midsummer.

Meantime, press reaction continued. In The Federalist,  a rightwing blogger wrung his hands and declared “We Need A New Counterculture To Combat The Left’s Circular Firing Brigades.” (He was almost right; but in my view the “Counterculture” whose relevance was demonstrated here  was an OLD one, that’s usually spelled solidarity, or UNIONS for short. 

Without that union clout, odds are Ben Frisch would now be just one more ex-something-or-other, driving for Uber and nursing old grudges.

On October 28, the arbitrator ruled. “While I don’t believe there is a scintilla of evidence Frisch is a Nazi sympathizer, or is in any way anti-Semitic,” the ruling began, “the fact remains Frisch’s behavior was inappropriate.”

Even Frisch agreed with that; he had apologized at the time, and later as well. But, the arbitrator also ruled that with his long clean record, one dumb joke didn’t justify the bum’s rush he got, and ordered his reinstatement.

The Wall Street Journal says it straight.

It wasn’t a total victory: the arbitrator denied his request for back pay, saying the loss of a semester’s compensation was a justifiable suspension.

But now, it appears, Frisch has been vindicated. As the Principal’s letter delicately put it:

In late January we will welcome Ben Frisch back into the classroom. Everyone agrees that his reintegration has required a thoughtful process, and it has involved him. We understand and appreciate that through this period we have shared little information, which may have contributed to some anxiety across the community, especially among those at some distance. Throughout the time, however, essential work has been underway. We appreciate Ben’s understanding and cooperation with the time the School has needed to develop his teaching schedule and respond to the concerns and wishes of faculty, administrative staff and Upper School students. Ben has given the School time to prepare for his return so those students who will experience a teacher change will do so at a natural semester break point.

You ask me, this “thoughtful process” translates mostly as an admission that the Principal and those who pushed for firing Frisch needed some time to eat crow and try to save face. (Compare this outcome to that last spring at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, where two teachers were suspended and then summarily fired almost at the same time, for the “offense” of inviting a distinguished Palestinian Quaker scholar to speak at a reputedly “Quaker” school. Their only recourse was a lawsuit, still pending, and their careers in “Quaker education” are done. (Links to our coverage of that case can be found here. )

Two footnotes to this story:

One: Quaker schools, even those with a long history, sky-high tuitions and many weighty alums, can face damaging public scrutiny despite their “private” status. Any Principal or headmaster (who also has to double as chief fundraiser), should have nightmares about having a personnel decision draw public second-guessing attention  from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the NY Daily News, the Times of Israel & others.

Two: For all the highfaultin talk about “Quaker values”, I hope that students and teachers at FS and other Quaker schools will not miss  the most important “teachable moment” of this affair, which is the fact that it was the presence of a labor union that made this outcome possible. The petitions were good, the letters were good. But don’t kid yourselves: Despite all the “policy handbook” palaver about participation, sensitivity, consensus and yada yada, it was the fact and power of organized solidarity that made it possible to hold the FS school power structure accountable. That’s what saved Ben Frisch’s career and reputation.

Any other conclusion would be, to say the least, obtuse.

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Categories: Blogs

A small break

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Thu, 12/13/2018 - 11:26am

My apologies for the radio silence on this so-called daily site. A family vacation took my attention away from most things Quaker and getting caught up on back work is keeping it away a few days. I should be up to speed by the weekend.

During that time the domain registration for QuakerQuaker turned due. I must have missed the deluge of email that its domain registrar usually sends. I’ve paid the domain bill for another two years and it should be back up for everyone.

Categories: Blogs

The Lonely “Wall”: Rolling Through Flyover Country To the Mexican Border

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 3:14am

I was in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving with family, and they wanted to take a road trip. We settled on San Diego, and they asked what I wanted to see.

The wall “prototypes.”

My answer: “The Border Wall. At least the samples.”

Actually, I soon learned, they’re called “prototypes.” You’ve likely seen the official photos. There’s eight of them, in a row near the real border fence. They’re the result of an early executive order from the current White House. They had their fifteen minutes in the spotlight almost a year ago.

There’s been no funding yet for the Real Thing, though a round of struggle for several billion worth is underway in the congressional lame duck session.

I’ll leave the blow-by-blow on that to others. For me the prototypes were a thing, a key symbol of where this country might yet be taken. I think of them as a portent; I dare to hope they’ll end up as no more than a monument.

I meant them no mischief; I wasn’t going to protest, splash them with paint, nothing like that. They were supposed to be impregnable and unclimbable anyway. I just wanted to go where they were, contemplate them up close, and with luck, walk over and touch one. Take some pictures of my own.

The others were game, so off we went. Finding them appeared to be easy: my GPS lit right up when I typed in “prototypes.”

They were, it said, near the Otay Mesa border crossing, about 25 miles southeast of downtown San Diego. Lines for roads went across my phone screen straight to the Prototype marker.

But my GPS was mistaken, or perhaps out of date. Otay Mesa was a complex of large low warehouses, blank white boxes in the middle of an arid-looking stretch of desert.

The California desert, the real fence, and Tijuana beyond it, across from Otay Mesa.

The crossing we saw was emitting a steady stream of huge tractor trailer trucks. Beyond it, East Tijuana sprawled out along  the border fence, with maquiladoras in front and housing behind, crawling up the edges of foothills a few miles farther east.

But the roads on my screen were all blocked in fact. More than that, they didn’t really exist. Pavement ran past the warehouses, then abruptly disappeared; it looked to me like roads had been bulldozed.

When we came to the first one, we checked the GPS, drove a few blocks up, and tried the next street. Nope. And then a third one.

None went beyond the warehouse complex. The GPS lines hinted that they must have done so, not long ago; the barriers looked new.

We had not thought to bring binoculars, and following the fence running eastward with the naked eye at first didn’t show any sign of the prototypes. Had we been misled by our devices?
No. Sliding my phone camera into the gap between two locked metal gates, I finally spotted them, far in the distance, hazy but barely discernible spots.

As close as we got.

That was the best we could do. Half an hour more of exploratory driving suggested that all access roads had either been closed or demolished. In the distance a cream-colored Border Patrol van raised a dust cloud, following a track near them; it was clearly not open to us, if we could even have found it.

We headed back toward San Diego and the motel. Puzzled, I started googling local news reports about this. Why was the location so remote in the first place? Why was it then closed off, essentially hidden?

Turns out the administration was expecting all hell to break loose around them. Homeland Security sent a memo to local officials, warning them to expect huge, militant protests. In response, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department spent at east $50,000 on riot equipment, including lots of pepper spray and tear gas, then paid for 10,000 hours of overtime for  deputies and staff to practice using it. Much more was spent on “securing the area” around the prototypes. (It certainly was fully secured against us tourists.)

But there weren’t any meaningful protests. When the president came to visit last March, about a hundred veterans were assembled to wave MAGA flags and applaud. Nearby, 15 doughty anti-wall protesters chanted and waved posters; there was no trouble.

Local radicals told the press they had decided to ignore the whole thing. (Once, though, a few art grad students parked behind the prototypes on the Mexican side, and when it got dark, projected some anti-wall images on them; but no damage was reported.)

[UPDATE: On December 10, several hundred protesters gathered on the American side to protest the treatment of asylum seekers penned up in tent cities on the Mexican side. The gathering was peaceful, though a few dozen were arrested.]

Besides the sparseness of protests, widespread skepticism, and even derision has been expressed about how useful the wall could be as a deterrent, coming from many who could hardly be classed as lefties. When a Fox News talking head claimed that a group of Navy SEALS proved unable to climb or breach the prototypes, a SEALS spokesman sniffed that no SEALS had wasted time going anywhere near them. And the military-oriented War Zone website also pointed out that drug and people smugglers are already adept at getting over, under or around existing wall-type barriers; it’s part of their skill set.

In fact, it seems the whole prototype project has been pretty much forgotten. A touring company has offered visits to them; but its site has none scheduled, and does not even list a ticket price; business must be less than brisk.

Besides, the White House has moved on to peddling hysteria about an “invasion” by caravans of terrorist asylum-seekers from Central America, armed with full diapers and empty stomachs. The day we went searching for the prototypes, several hundred tired, hungry refugees, mainly from Honduras, were crowding into tents and a Tijuana soccer stadium, before making efforts to file asylum claims. Soon enough, the border Patrol had a chance to use some of that stored up tear gas, several miles west of where the prototypes were keeping their vigil, on mothers and toddlers

I still wanted to visit the wall segments. I maintain the possibly vain hope they’ll end up as a monument to monumental folly.

But the next day, we visited my other favored site, the San Diego Mission, founded by Spanish priests before the radical gringo colonists in the east had won independence from King George.

There I had better luck: they let us in. I lit two candles: one for a friend facing surgery, and the other as a plea for forgiveness for all this crazy wickedness.

There was no damage at this small demonstration either.

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Categories: Blogs

Christmas, Another Poem from Judith Brown

What Canst Thou Say - Wed, 12/05/2018 - 5:52pm


is about the simplicity of Jesus

born in a manger.

There weren’t any trumpets.

The night was silent and holy.

A refugee family


Their survival depending on

the hospitality and support of


Christmas is meant to change us

to be the bringers of a

Merry Christmas

to others.

— Judith A. Brown

Categories: Blogs

Do We Miss the WASPs? Do We Need a New “Establishment”?

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Wed, 12/05/2018 - 2:29pm

In the December 5 New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat makes his column a paean to the lost American Establishment that George H.W. Bush, being buried today with much fanfare,  represents (to him):

“Why We Miss the WASPS,” he undertakes to explain. He says we can

Ross Douthat

describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Not that this late lamented Establishment, which he thinks reigned for a century or more, was perfect:

 The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology (and don’t get me started on its Masonry).

Nevertheless, since Douthat is a staunch conservative, this column,  like most of his work, soon circles back to his abiding themes, among the most prominent of which is how bad these days are in contrast to what existed Before The Fall (e.g., all the fun parts of the Sixties).

In this case, the unwelcome news is that the Old GHWB Establishment has been succeeded by a new one, only worse: Douthat declares we have a new Upper Class, but one with no class:

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Well, as is true in much public conversation nowadays, some of the biggest landmines are buried among the pronouns. In Douthat’s case, one must always be cautious about “we.”

Who is the “we” in his “we miss the WASPs”?

Turns out there were many readers who took exception to being part of his “we.” I prepared a reader’s comment for it early this morning; when submitted it was one of 75. At this writing, it is buried under 870-plus more, and it is not yet noon.

Mine does not entirely differ from Douthat’s, though I do strongly dissent from his characterization of the new elite, at least some of its most visible members. For instance, with every passing day I see more clearly how the Obama White House was a high class operation from start to finish. Their dignity completely out-WASPed the WASPs (except maybe in the volume of thank you notes) and provided examples of character I am keen to pass on to my three living generations of posterity.

Yes, there were policy mistakes. But that is something else: beyond the unfailing discipline and decorum of the First couple, there is the fact that in those eight years, not one member of the administration was indicted. And never mind (for now) comparing that spotless record to the steadily unfolding criminality of the current occupants; glance briefly back at the years  of the sainted Ronald Reagan, whose reign resulted in “the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials, the largest number for any U.S. president.”

138: That’s 1.4 criminal scandals per month, for 96 months.

Further, note that today’s loudly-mourned emblematic Establishmentarian all along was Number Two in that epic conclave of the crooked.

Still, I don’t completely reject Douthat’s nostalgia for a trusted, honest Establishment. As I said in my comment (now lost amid more than a thousand others),

E. Digby Baltzell

[Douthat’s] theory here has been set forth more extensively & elegantly by the late great E. Digby Baltzell, historical sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

Baltzell’s career topic was the care, feeding & survival of aristocracies, and from it he produced two masterworks: The Protestant Establishment (1964) & Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia (1979). (For Quakers readers, both should be required.)

Baltzell’s key argument was that aristocracies persist if they can absorb the brightest of the lower ranks, and above all, if they solve their society’s great crises.

FDR was Baltzell’s model Establishment leader: he saved and extended its hegemony by tackling the Depression & winning World War Two. But then this Establishment stumbled in dealing with American racism, and failed abysmally, fatally in Vietnam. (See David Halberstam’s great elegy/autopsy, The Best & the Brightest. [1972])

The rest is (yet unfolding) history, with the Reagan-GHWB years showing its rapid decline into the “Southern Strategy” and grab-the-loot-while-you-can profiteering.

Good riddance. And yes, this old Establishment’s successor is now taking shape. While still a work in progress, it’s pretty clear that for many reasons, Douthat won’t like it; and for a few similar, but more different reasons, in many ways neither will I.

In Baltzell’s version of aristocratic history, besides managing big crises, an aristocracy’s key to staying on top is by absorbing the brightest upstarts from the lower orders;  his historical examples are England vs. old France. The French aristocracy, he argues, became a closed caste, with no way for rising underlings to break in. The pressure produced the bloody explosion of the French Revolution, which Baltzell considers a disaster.

By contrast, the British upper crust, after their brief revolutionary interregnum,  became adept at dropping knighthoods and other titles on carefully vetted, especially newly-rich, commoners (e.g., Sirs Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr; and more importantly, her royal highness the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle); the result was continuing centuries of non-revolutionary muddling through.

Douthat thinks along the same line:

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.”

Baltzell called for much the same thing sixty years ago. But note that Douthat does not include LGBTs on his list; this is no accident.

At the same time [The WASP elite] would have retained both its historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism) and its more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism).

Here he gets entirely carried away by his other overarching theme. After all, his elite religious “adaptation” has already arrived, but its  “Protestant rigor” has taken a resurgent racist, islamaphobic and raging homophobic/anti-LGBT form; along with the relentless reactionary Catholic putsch against the all-too-mild reformism of pope Francis,  — a crusade Douthat promotes at every opportunity.

Yes, that new religious “Establishment” is fighting tooth and nail for  supremacy against all that it saw embodied in the era of liberal “Obamination.” Douthat would likely insist that this is not exactly what he was after, but such protests will not convince. He has helped to sow the wind. And we will soon be reaping the whirlwind of its conquest of, among other redoubts, the Supreme Court. How will this struggle turn out? As GHWB, the moment’s memento of that fabled lost Establishment, goes to his warrior’s rest,

 I’m reminded of a proverb that I’m told is African:

“When the elephants fight, It is the grass that gets trampled. . . .”

The post Do We Miss the WASPs? Do We Need a New “Establishment”? appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Poetry by Judith Brown

What Canst Thou Say - Wed, 12/05/2018 - 8:49am
                                  High Desert

Longing for the sight of water,

I walked along the Truckee River.

Turning near the tree line between California and Nevada,

I saw the coyote..

looking at me with compelling gaze control.

A mystical creature revered for wisdom by Native  Americans.

Coyotes openly play and display affection to family members,

put out small fires by burying the embers or rolling on the flames,

improving on creation,

Reminding us not to be dualistic in our thinking.

Among the greatest survivor on this earth.

We are evolving with them.

They teach their young,

make up after fights,

console the one who is hurt

mourn their dead,

Experience the ineffable.

with no language

no religion

no scripture

a coyote specific

relationship with God.

—Judith A. Brown

                                      A Syrian Mother

with three children

envied the dead because

they had found a place to settle down.

Finding refuge in Germany.

the only thing she feared

was religious intolerance.

Her children were grateful there

wasn’t a single shelled house.

The birds were singing

Welcome to Germany.

At school the teacher wrote

warm greetings on the board

and surprised the children

who were not expecting

to make friends

on the first day.

—Judith A. Brown

                         The Moon in the Morning

As I opened my door at dawn,

the full moon invited me

into its embrace.

Filling me with love energy

from the Big Bang,

no longer disconnected from the cosmos.

A welcome call to all creation

into a sacred space.

Redeeming and renewing.

God going before us

and yet deeply incarnate

in the present moment.

Calling us to open to a new future

for everything and everyone we love.

—- Judith A. Brown


Categories: Blogs

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

Micah Bales - Mon, 12/03/2018 - 2:00am

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/2/18, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, & Luke 21:25-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

The weather has been strange this year. Out where we live in Washington, DC, last winter was much warmer than normal. This summer was extremely hot, and fall has been unusually warm and wet.

In the mid-Atlantic, trees normally start to change colors in October, and by this time of years they are usually bare of leaves as we approach wintertime. That’s not how things are this time around. It’s the beginning of December, and most trees still have their leaves. Some have begun to change colors, but others are still green. The weather has turned cold now – we’re getting lows in the 20s some nights – but the trees haven’t caught up to the reality of the season we’re in.

I don’t think the trees are alone. These are strange times we’re living in. The weather is all wrong. Our social, political, and cultural environment is changing in unpredictable ways. And, for many of us, our leaves haven’t changed to fit the season. We’re still green, even as winter is coming on fast.

Jesus spoke a lot about trees – fig trees, in particular. He used them to teach his disciples at various points in his ministry. Earlier on in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us a parable involving a fig tree that failed to bear fruit. Thanks to the intervention of the gardener, this tree got one last chance – one more year – to bear fruit. But if it didn’t, it would be cut down to make way for trees that would bear fruit.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus points to the way that trees are a sign to us. They tell us what season we are in. When trees sprout green leaves, we know that it will soon be summertime. When the leaves begin to change colors and fall to the ground, it is time to prepare for winter.

The kingdom of God is like this. Just as we know that summer is near when the trees put forth their leaves, there are changes in the season that alert us to the arrival of God’s reign.

In Luke 21, Jesus has warned the disciples that a big change in seasons is coming. The reign of God is has come near. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The temple is going to be destroyed and a whole new order is about to be established.

Understandably, the disciples want more details about what’s going to happen and how to prepare. According to Jesus, their entire society is about to be thrown into chaos. The temple is the center of everything – the holiest place in the holiest land – for it to be destroyed is almost inconceivable. How could anyone see this sort of thing coming?

The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus warns the disciples not to get overly excited or afraid. With the great changes coming, there will be those who will claim to have quick fixes to get us out of this mess. Jesus says: Don’t believe them. There is no easy way out, no painless revolution. The way forward is going to be hard, so don’t try to flee it.

Jesus speaks about the tumult that is to come. Nations rising against nation and wars on the horizon. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” – maybe even including fires that destroy vast areas and cover the nation in smoke.

But before all that happens, the struggle is going to get personal. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be arrested and persecuted. “You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says. But, as scary as this process will be, it’s a good thing. It will provide an opportunity to bear witness. Jesus promises the disciples that he will provide them with “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Out of the chaos, truth will shine.

Still, it’s going to be hard. Some of them are going to die in the process. Yet in spite of all of the persecutions and betrayals that the disciples will experience, Jesus calls on them to hold fast to their faith – to trust in God as sovereign of the universe. God is in control, and even death can be redeemed.

The faith that Jesus talks about isn’t a matter of merely believing certain statements about who God is. Real faith is a matter of visceral trust, placing our lives in the hands of God – trusting that he loves us and will deliver us from evil – even when it seems that evil has the upper hand and God is nowhere to be found.

This kind of faith isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to practice this kind of trust in God as long as we are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus warns that those who are enmeshed in the System’s ways of thinking and operating will be utterly rocked and dismayed by the changes that are coming.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

We’ve talked about trees this morning, and how their leafy activities help us to track the seasons. But, of course, the real source of the seasons is found in the heavens. The best way to track what season we are in is to watch the celestial bodies – sun, moon, and stars. As their positions change over the course of the year, we know exactly what time it is.

People have known this for a very long time. For the ancients of the Greco-Roman world, the heavenly realms were a symbol of order, power, and authority. The gods of the ancient world represented these reliable, unshakable heavenly powers.

And yet, Jesus says that when the reign of God arrives, the “powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What kind of power can shake the heavenly realm? Only the one who created them in the first place.

This language of “heavenly powers” isn’t merely a poetic flourish; it’s pointing to something tangible and real. It’s language that Jesus uses to describe a tectonic shift in power dynamics and social relationships. Cities overthrown and empires toppled. A dramatic change in human civilization.

For people living in the kingdoms of this world – the Matrix, the System, the Market, whatever you want to call it – the powers of the heavens represent everything that allow us to make sense of reality. The temple was a power of the heavens. The throne of Caesar and the imperial legions were powers of the heavens. The White House and Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and Wall Street, NPR and TED Talks are powers of the heavens.

These “powers” are the touchstones of our society’s power structure that we can’t imagine living without. They’re givens, a stable point of reference that we can steer our ships by. They tell us the season that we are in. And they’ve become a substitute for God.

“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus tells his disciples to expect the whole system to fall apart. This is part of the game plan. This is the season that we have entered into. For those who are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world, this process will be terrifying. When the powers of the heavens are shaken, those who have placed these powers at the center of their lives will be completely disoriented. The roar of the waves will overwhelm them.

For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, there will be a different experience. For those of us who have done the hard work of de-centering the powers of the heavens, this time of disruption and tumult will come not as a shock but as a cry of relief. For those of us who have grounded our life in the words of Jesus and the living presence of God’s spirit, the world’s days of grief will be our days of joy.

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up. Raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. Because we “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

As followers of Jesus, we are people of peace. Like our Lord Jesus, we are called to die rather than kill. Yet it is also true that we are in a spiritual battle. We’re called to fight with the spiritual weapons of love against the powers of hatred, confusion, and fear.

So when Jesus says, “stand up, raise your heads,” I can’t help but thinking of the French resistance, or any other resistance movement, coming up from underground. When the Pentagon and Wall Street were in control, it was hard to raise our heads. It was scary to stand up. We were in enemy-controlled territory, and we had to be careful. But with the arrival of God’s kingdom, we can lift up our heads and show ourselves. The Allies have arrived. We can take the fight to the enemy. That enemy is selfishness, hatred, death, and fear.

We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Because the powers of the heavens have been shaken. The new life of the kingdom has come near.

For a Christian, for a follower of Jesus, the world’s time of crisis is our moment of greatest hope. We see the Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory. We can stand up and raise our voices, pointing the world to the truth. We have been blinded for so long by the powers of the heavens, but now we can see again. The kingdom of God has drawn near, and we can become its citizens. The age of love and peace has arrived; we can lay down our arms, take up our plowshares, and study war no more. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus’] words will not pass away.”

The powers of the heavens are being shaken. It’s happening right before our eyes. Recognize the season. The fig tree is putting forth its leaves, and soon summer will be here. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Our redemptions is near. But we can still miss it. We can get so caught up in the stress and worry of our daily lives that we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. We can fail to notice the changing of the leaves. We can be so blinded by the powers of the heavens that we are astonished and terrified along with the rest of the world when they are shaken.

Jesus warns us against this pitfall. He says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

Are you weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness? Do you retreat into distraction, entertainment, despair? Is the living presence of God the center of your whole life? When you make decisions, do you look to Jesus and wait on the Holy Spirit to direct you? Are your job, your family, your money, your political commitments, closer to the center of your life than Jesus is?

Wake up! See things as they really are, not as you wish they were. See things as Jesus sees them, as he will reveal them to you. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Because we can stand. We don’t have to be afraid. We can lift our heads. We don’t have to be bowed down by the weight of our anxiety and disappointments. We don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders. That’s God’s job.

We know that God has shaken the powers of heavens. God’s kingdom has drawn near. The world is about to turn, yet again, and we can be part of it. Even though it’s scary. Even though many around us will be horrified and disoriented. We can be salt and light in the midst of confusion and darkness. We can be a force for healing in the midst of so much pain. We can invite others into the way of Jesus, so that they too can lift their heads and see that the powers are shaken – and that our redemption is drawing near.

Related Posts: If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess? In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

The post Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

Retirement, Remixing, and the Religious Society of Friends

Holy Ordinary (Brent Bill) - Tue, 11/27/2018 - 9:17am
I don't post much here anymore since I mostly use Facebook, Twitter, and the like to offer thoughts. But what I have to say here requires a bit more space.

As my faithful reader (notice, singular, not plural) knows, I retired from full-time, paid employment a year ago. And while I'm as busy as I've ever been, I'm busy doing mostly things I really enjoy -- writing, leading retreats, hanging out with friends, and the like.

I've also come to really enjoy something else -- and that's watching friends of mine who are a generation or two younger than me move into really significant leadership and staff positions in the Religious Society of Friends. What I especially enjoy about this is seeing how they do things differently than I (and others of my advanced age) would do them.

Now, when I was younger and way more insecure (I'm still insecure -- just not as much as I used to be), I would have been critical of how they do things differently. After all, I did them the right way. And I did -- for my time and with my understanding of what was needed. But times have changed (my gosh, I sound like my Grandma Bill!) and ways doing things in the RSOF and its institutions and organizations need to change, too. I'm pleased that younger (than me) leaders are doing just that.

I'm just going to focus primarily on one example (because otherwise this post would become a book -- and I'm already working on a book with a deadline looming!!) and that's my friend Wess Daniels who serves as the William R Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

I've known Wess for a number of years and followed his thinking and writing -- especially about the RSOF and revitalization. He's a good thinker (but not as good a writer as I am -- kidding). And his thinking and writing have challenged me to rethink some of ways of how we do things. One of his most innovative ideas is that of remixing. I'm not going to go into it fully here (if you want to explore it further and I hope you do, check out his book A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture or his recent Michener Seminar at Southeastern Yearly Meeting), but as I understand it, it is remaining faithful to the bedrock of our faith tradition while reinterpreting it (remixing) so it is hearable, usuable, and useful for today. He posits that "remixing" is what the early Friends did to revive their understanding of the spiritual vitality of primitive Christianity.

And now Wess is remixing in his position at Guilford. The good work of Friends Center and, especially its Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, was founded and grew thanks to the efforts of my dear friend (and Friend) Max Carter. It's been a joy to watch this program grow and prosper under Max's direction (and with the help of other friends/Friends like Frank Massey and Deborah Shaw). I've even had the good fortune to lead workshop or two there. Friends Center and QLSP made a huge difference in RSOF and in young adults' lives. Max's contributions can not be overstated (I only wish my own to the RSOF were anywhere as significant as his!). And his vital ministry to Friends continues (which is one of the fun things about retirement -- all the ministry without all the administration, budgeting, etc!).

I see Wess taking the bedrock of Friends Center's "tradition" and remixing it in ways that embrace that tradition and make it accessible in new ways to a new generation of students. I think that's grand. In the same way that it's grand that Gabe Ehri and the Friends Publishing folks have remixed Friends Journal, Marta Rusek and Dan Kasztelan are remixing communications at FGC and FUM, and on and on.

Part of what I believe is that we, as created in the image of God, are called to create -- and re-create. I see that happening around me and am grateful.

My prayer is that I can continue to celebrate the "re-creation" (remixing) even when it rubs up against my ideas about how things should be done. While I continue my ministry in new ways, freed from the constraints of having to earn a living, may I support those who are re-doing our ministry in new ways. To borrow an idea from the Bible -- "the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"  Well, the "old" (at least my personal part of it!) has not quite gone yet (and I hope it doesn't for awhile!), but I rejoice that the "new is here."
Categories: Blogs

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?

Micah Bales - Mon, 11/26/2018 - 2:00am

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/25/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 & Revelation 1:4b-8 & John 18:33-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace this morning. We need the peace that comes from Jesus. We need the light of the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead – Jesus, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Ruler of the kings of the earth. Presidents and prime ministers. Generals and department chairs. Princes and popes. Jesus is sovereign over all of them. God has given him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He is king of kings and lord of lords. Can I get an ‘amen’?

It can be hard to tell, though, can’t it? It’s hard to blame us if we have a tough time believing that Jesus is master and commander of the world we live in. I mean, look at it! Wars and threats of violence. The rising tide of climate change – drought and smoke and hurricanes. Refugees by the millions. We live in a world where grinding poverty is the norm, while those at the top wallow in luxury and self-deception.

Something is wrong. Where are you, king Jesus? Where is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead? Where is the sovereign power that God has promised us for so long, the throne that will crush the might of the Beast and establish a society of peace and justice? I don’t see it. Do you?

How much longer are we supposed to wait?

That’s what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus’ first disciples, who followed him from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. They knew their teacher was the future king of Israel. The messiah. He was going to be large and in charge, just you wait and see!

We’re still waiting. Just like Peter, James, John, and all the others, we modern-day disciples of Jesus are hungry to see “all peoples, nations, and languages [serving him.]” We long for the “everlasting dominion that shall not pass away,” the age of wholeness, healing, and truth that God’s messiah promises us.

We’ve been waiting a long time. For most of the two thousand years since the resurrection, the posture of the church has been one of expectant waiting. Living in the tension of “now, but not yet” – with an emphasis on the “not yet.” Grappling with the reality that things still aren’t the way they’re supposed to be – the way that God created us to live.
Despite the reality of the resurrection, everywhere we look, we find our world still in a fallen state. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground. When will Jesus come to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found?

Joy to the world! That’s what we want to see. “Joy to world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”

That’s the joy we seek. We saw it in the light of the resurrection. We saw it in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve seen it again, and again, throughout successive movements of the Holy Spirit throughout history. Jesus keeps coming. Keeps teaching. Keeps reigning in our hearts, minds, spirits, and lives as communities. He is risen!

So why hasn’t he come to reign? I mean openly, outwardly, permanently? Why hasn’t Jesus conquered the world, banished sin and suffering forever? Why hasn’t God finally put an end to humanity’s madness and destroyed those who are destroying the earth? When will Jesus come to rule, not just in our hearts, not just in our personal lives, but in our life as a civilization? When will it finally be that every knee will bend, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord? When will we be changed, transformed once and for all?

That’s the promise, after all. That’s the end game. The Day of the Lord.

The prophets have been telling us about this day for thousands of years. The day when God will have the final victory. The earth will be restored. Justice will be done, and he will wipe away every tear. To use the imagery of the prophet Daniel, the court will sit in judgement and the books will be opened.

When will Jesus’ court finally be in session? When will he come to judge the nations and save us from ourselves? When will Jesus reign as king?

In our gospel reading this morning, John tells us about Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Palestine. Pilate is not a king, but he is a powerful man. He is the civil authority, appointed by the emperor to oversee the occupation of Judea. His job is to administer justice – to mete out rewards and punishments – in the kingdom of Caesar.

It says in our text that Pilate “entered his headquarters again” to talk with Jesus. “Again,” because he had just been outside talking with the Jewish religious authorities. Pilate suggests that the Jews should try Jesus according to Jewish law. But the priests ask Pilate to try the case, because only Rome is allowed to execute people.

That’s always been one of the major marks of sovereignty: A monopoly on violence. As imperial sovereign in the region, Rome reserves certain rights to itself. Especially the right to kill.

So Pilate re-enters his headquarters to conduct a cross-examination. Who is this Jesus? Is he a revolutionary, someone worthy of being broken on a Roman cross? Or is he just some local heretic, a danger to the priestly establishment perhaps, but no threat to Rome?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Now something that I find interesting here is that according to John’s gospel the Jewish authorities don’t accuse Jesus of claiming to be king. But Pilate wants to know. For Pilate, probably the only crime worth his time and attention is insurrection. So is Jesus an insurrectionist? Does he challenge the lordship of Caesar? Is he a king?

Something I love about Jesus is that he never answers questions directly if they’re asked in bad faith. So when Pilate asks him whether he’s a king, Jesus replies in this way: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Jesus has come to testify to the A and the Z, the beginning and the end. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Everyone who hears the word of God – and does it – is his mother, sister, and brother. Jesus has been given an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away, because the truth will never pass away. When we hear the truth and obey it, Jesus becomes our king.

And that’s great. But it’s also a little bit vague, isn’t it? Pilate obviously thinks so. His response to Jesus’ words: “What is truth?”

What is truth? It’s a fair question. Because it’s hard to tell sometimes. The rulers of this world all have their own version of ‘truth.’ There’s the truth of the marketplace, the truth of Wall Street. There’s the truth of endless technological progress and innovation, the truth of Silicon Valley. There’s the truth of might-makes-right, the truth of the Pentagon. There are so many truths, and so many powers vying for our allegiance. These kingdoms of money and violence and progress are so seductive, because they have demonstrated their power again and again. We know the pleasure they can provide and the terror they can inflict.

But what is the truth Jesus speaks of? What kind of kingdom is this? What does it mean to listen to his voice amidst the roar of empires?

The reign of Jesus is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, ever could experience within the intellectual and emotional confines of human empire. Jesus tries to explain this to Pilate. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

My kingdom is not from here. Not from this world.

Well, what world is it then? What is this world where truth is alive and Jesus is king? When will we see this world outside our windows, in the workplace, and in our public policy? When will the kingdom finally come, as we have been promised throughout scripture, with visible power and glory? “One like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

We’ve been waiting for so long.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace. We need this truth. We need the reality of his resurrection in our own bodies. We need his love – for ourselves, and to share with the broken world around us.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world – this present social order, economic system, and spiritual state that we’re in. His kingdom can’t be held back or denied by all the lies that this world calls “truth.” It can’t be snuffed out by the darkness of evil, cowardice, and indifference. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We need this light. We need the presence “of him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That’s our calling. That’s our destiny. That’s our kingdom, even in the midst of all this grief and loss. To be freed from all the weights and confusions that hold us back from love.

We are called into a new social reality as his followers, disciples who belong to the truth and listen to his voice. We are, each and every one of us, called to be priests serving the God and father of our Lord Jesus. Belonging to the truth, we listen to his voice.

We’ve been waiting for so long.

The kingdom of God is coming, and it’s here. It’s like a mustard seed, growing before our eyes. Growing right back up even when the evil of this world takes a lawnmower to it. The darkness cannot overcome it. It cannot overcome us. It cannot defeat us as we hear the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice.

In spite of our weariness and doubt and waiting, we say with the early church:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Related Posts: The Kingdom of God Can Be Yours – All It Will Cost You Is Everything In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

The post If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess? appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs
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