The Seed as Quaker metaphor

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 03/28/2018 - 12:27pm

From Jnana Hodson’s blog, a look at “The Seed” as a Quaker metaphor:

Considering today’s emphasis on individuality, plurality, and personal psychology, I believe that returning to the metaphor of the Seed holds the most potential for fertile spiritual development and guidance in our own era.

I find the evolution of Quaker metaphors fascinating. Early Quaker sermons and epistles were packed with biblical allusions. I grew up relatively unchurched but I’ve tried to make up for it over the years. I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover using the One Year Bible plan (like a lot of people I suspect, it took me a little over two years) and have been part of different denominational Bible study groups. I try to look up references. But even with that I don’t catch half the references early sermons packed in.

John Woolman lived a couple of generations after the first Friends. We Quaker remember his Journal for ministry of its anti-slavery sentiments, finally becoming a consensus among Friends by the time of its publication in 1774. But other religious folks have read it for its literary value. Open a random page and Woolman will have up to half a dozen metaphors for the Divine. It’s packed and rich and accessible. I find a kind of particular Quaker spiritual truth in Woolman’s rotation of metaphors: it implies that divinity is more than any specific words we try to stuff it into.

Lately Quaker metaphors have tended to become more sterile. I think we’re still worried about specifics but instead of expanding our language we contract it into a kind of impenetrable code. The “Light of Christ” becomes the “Inward Christ” then the “Inward Light” then “the Light” or “Spirit.” We’re still echoing the Light metaphors packed into the Book of John but doing so in such a way that seems particularly parochial to Friends and non-obvious to newcomers. A major New Testament theme is reduced to Quaker lingo.

Jnana Hodson’s problem with “the seed” as metaphor is interesting: “‘seed,’ as such, has far fewer Biblical citations than the corresponding complementary ‘light’ or ‘true’ and ‘truth’ do.” I’m not sure I ever noticed that. I like the seed, with its organic connotations and promise of future growth.  But apparently the few biblical allusions were rather sexist (spoiler: it often meant semen) and lacking in biological awareness. It feels like Friends are searching for neutral metaphors like “the seed” these days; we also have a lot of gatherings around “weaving.” I certainly don’t think we should be limited to first century images of divinity but I also don’t think we’ve quite figured out how we can talk about the guidance we receive from the Inward Teacher.

The Seed, initially, is the most problematic of the three central Quaker metaphors

On one hand, it may be seen as the most original, yet it was left as the least…

As Light Is Sown
Categories: Blogs

When we say we are holding someone in

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 03/28/2018 - 7:11am

When we say we are holding someone in the Light, it is wise to remember that holding is an action verb. Sometimes I confuse intercession prayer with placing a short order to a Spirit I treat as a personal complaint department. “You didn’t get my order right, God…she’s even sicker than before!” I love the way Quaker teachings humble me and help me work with love while waiting expectantly for God’s will to be done.

— Bonnie S.  in a recent comment

Categories: Blogs

Hope in the Middle East

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 03/27/2018 - 6:54pm

As the March Friends Journal theme of Quakers and the Holy Land comes to a close, this week’s featured article is one with hope. Sandy Rea shares stories of teaching in various parts of the Middle East with his wife Stephanie Judson:

I fell in love with Lebanon: with the people, the sound of the language, the tastes of the food, and smells of the spices. Views to the Lebanon mountains from Beirut’s seaside boulevards and rooftops are enticing. Mountain villages have preserved their charm by keeping older homes with the blonde stone and red tile roofs. The hard-working and earnest teachers and the smart, business-minded shop owners are always glad to see foreigners. There is an industriousness, resilience, and pride in the Lebanese that contribute to the repeated risings from so many destructions of the city.

Sandy also gives us histories of times in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews have lived together in peace. It is possible. Today Sandy is clerk of the Middle East Collaborative of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which is working  on reconciliation in the region.

What Once Was Can Be Again

Working on a shared vision of equality and a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Friends Journal
Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Tue, 03/27/2018 - 11:48am

I know not why you chose me

preoccupied with self

Thank you
Thank you

for turning my life
inside out

Claiming my heart

Leaving me to marvel
at your great love

Taking in gifts

Will I ever become
an inert string

Waiting to be plucked

Sounding of me
playing notes of You

Categories: Blogs

I do not believe there has ever been

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 03/27/2018 - 7:30am

I do not believe there has ever been any possible way of salvation but that of a birth of divinity in man.

Categories: Blogs

Ask Me Anything: Do Quakers celebrate Easter and if so, how?

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Mon, 03/26/2018 - 6:24pm

A question From Jessica F about Friends and Easter.

On the face of it, this is an easy question. Early Friends were loath to recognize any liturgical practices and they were lower-p puritanical about anything that smacked of paganism. Famously, they didn’t use the common names of the week or months because many of them referred to non-Christian deities, like Thor and Janus.

They were especially grumpy about anything that smacked of latter-day syncretism. Many of the church holidays were seen as pagan festivals with a superficial Christian overlay. I’ll be the first to admit they could get kind of obnoxious this way. Wikipedia explains some of this attitude:

Other Protestant groups took a different attitude, with most Anabaptists, Quakers, Congregationalists and Presbyterian Puritans regarding such festivals as an abomination. The Puritan rejection of Easter traditions was (and is) based partly upon their interpretation of 2 Corinthians 6:14–16 and partly upon a more general belief that, if a religious practice or celebration is not actually written in the Christian Bible, then that practice/celebration must be a later development and cannot be considered an authentic part of Christian practice or belief—so at best simply unnecessary, at worst actually sinful.

In Latin, Easter is called Pascha, a reference to the Jewish Passover festival. But in England, Pascha took place in the month the old English called Ēostre after a goddess whose festival was celebrated in that month. This made it doubly hard for English Protestant groups that wanted to cleanse Christianity of “popish” or “pagan” influences. So for right or wrong, they ignored it like they did the day the world calls Christmas.

Symbolically, Quakers love the idea of Easter. One of George Fox’s most key openings was that“Christ has come to teach the people himself!” The idea that Jesus rose again and is with us is pretty central to traditional Quaker beliefs.

These days Easter is largely celebrated by Friends standing up on Sunday to break the silence of worship with nostalgic stories of Easters in their pre-Quaker youth. Sometimes they’ll admit to having attended a Easter service at another church before coming to meeting that morning. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get ministry about flowers or hats.

Categories: Blogs

Hitler jokes and Quaker school

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Mon, 03/26/2018 - 3:42pm

The case of a beloved Quaker Jewish teacher being fired from a NYC Friends School for making a Nazi salute as a joke is brings us interesting commentary. Mark Oppenheimer writes in writes in Tablet:

One might call this whole episode the triumph of Waspy good intentions over Jewish common sense… But of course Quaker schools—and Quaker camps, like the one I once attended, and Quaker meetinghouses—are, these days, pretty Jewish places. The Times article has a burlesque feel, with a bunch of Jewish students and alumni performing in Quaker-face.

He also makes interesting points about the cultures of Jewish humor (“We Jews survive because of Hitler jokes”) and that of Friends:

The Quaker practice of silent worship can disposes its practitioners against the loud, bawdy, contentious discourse that infuses Jewish culture. I’m not making claims about individual Quakers—I can introduce you to perfectly hilarious Quakers, some of whom interrupt even more than I do—but at their institutions, the values that come to the fore are Gene Sharp not Gene Wilder. In their earnestness, Quaker schools are David Brooks not Mel Brooks. You get the idea.

I’m always a bit unsure how seriously to take cultural Quaker stereotypes as motivating forces in pieces like these. I wonder how many Friends actually work or study at a Manhattan Quaker school. A more generic headmaster fear-of-conflict seems as likely a cause as anything to do with silent worship. But the Friends Seminary incident seems as good a marker as anything else of the complicated relationships of Friends schools today.

Jewish Teacher Fired from Quaker School for Making Nazi Joke

If there is one lesson to be learned from the sad, strange tale of the firing of Ben…

Tablet Magazine
Categories: Blogs

Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sat, 03/24/2018 - 1:43pm

Place: A Friends School

Time: Now

Note: This story is fiction. It is also true.

The door to Matthew’s office was open a few inches, but Teacher Ellen still knocked tentatively. The door was big, the oak was heavy and dark, but not ornate. The sign that read “Matthew Evans, Head of School,” was small and visually unimposing. But no matter how modest, to her it still meant “The Boss.” 

Matthew was an open-minded and friendly boss, to be sure. And encouraging to junior teachers with lots of ideas. 

But still, the boss. His office where Ellen’s future as a Quaker private school teacher would probably be decided. It was also where the buck stopped, where the school’s most unpleasant tasks got done.

Like this one, Ellen thought, when she heard him say, “Come in.” She glanced back at the two students behind her. The girl, thin, her dark hair still tousled, was trying for an air of defiance. The boy, an entitled preppy if there ever was one, didn’t need to work for an insolent expression; it came with the pedigree. 

Yes, Ellen, she thought, waving them in ahead of her, admit it: you’re prejudiced against seniors who drive their own Beamers. She admitted it.

They took their places in front of the broad, dark desk, The students in front, Ellen behind and to their left. She noted again that, no matter how affable Matthew could be in faculty meetings or bantering with students over lunch, he was also master of a dead-serious poker-face. 

She had only seen it once before, when a student drug dealer was expelled. But that once made clear it was one of the tools of his trade as school head. The stern poker face was as necessary as his ability to charm donations out of wealthy parents for new programs and raises in teacher pay. 

Matthew was examining a sheet of paper in an open folder. His jacket was off, but his tie was a solid navy blue and his demeanor entirely businesslike. He let them stand there in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. 

Then he dropped the paper, glanced up and said, “Teacher Ellen?”

“It’s just as you see there,” Ellen said. “I went into the drama building last night, to get a book I’d left in a classroom, and on the way out I heard noises from the auditorium. I went in quietly, and, um, found Kevin and Connie on the mattress behind the stage. They were, um, unclothed, and apparently having sex.”

Matthew shifted a stony gaze to the students. “You knew this was completely against the behavior code?” He said.

Connie stared at the floor and nodded. Kevin’s response was something between a nod and a shrug.

“And you also understand,” Matthew went on, “this infraction is eligible for immediate expulsion?”

More nods, but from the corner of her eye, Ellen caught the hint of a curl to Kevin’s lip, which she took to mean, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Connie,” Matthew intoned, “I’m sending you home for a month. Report to the Counseling Office, and they’ll escort you to your room to pick up your things. You may go.”

Connie started to sniffle, then put a hand to her face and shuffled out.

Matthew waited another long moment. It seemed to Ellen he didn’t even blink.

“Kevin,” he said, “This is your second incident. You were lucky there was a different head of school that time. I’m sending you home til after Christmas.”

“But I’ll miss finals,” Kevin protested.

“Not if you want to graduate,” Matthew said coldly. “You’ll make arrangements with the teachers by email, and your return is subject to their certifying that all the work is up to date.” 

Matthew picked up the folder. “Report to the Counseling office, and you are not to speak to Connie there, or anywhere else on campus.

When Kevin’s footsteps had faded down the long old hallway, Ellen realized she felt as if she had been holding her breath through the whole ordeal.

Matthew shook his head and the poker face dissolved into a tight smile. “That’s definitely not the fun part of my job,” he said, “but sometimes –” he opened his palms, left the rest of the sentence hanging.

Then he stood up from the desk, stepped to a hanging file drawer, and slipped the folder in a slot. “Enough of that!” He said, as if he’d opened a window to banish an unpleasant odor.

“Now,” he was settling back into his chair, “I’ve got lots to do, but tell me a bit about your sophomore field trip.”

Ellen was relieved; the encouraging boss was back. “It was great,” she said. “The Old Roadside Friends Cemetery is a goldmine. It’s got gobs of Quaker and antislavery history, and the kids seemed to love cleaning it up. There’s lots more work to do, though.”

“What about the neighborhood?” 

“It’s pretty rough,” she said, “but we had no trouble. We visited the Baptist church across from it, and the pastor was welcoming. Said he was glad to see Quakers taking some responsibility for what’s still their property. He invited us to visit a service, and I set that up for this Friday.”

“Excellent.” Matthew was beaming now. 

A bell clanged, echoing up and down the hallway outside.

“Time for my class,” Ellen said, and turned to go.

“Keep it up,” Matthew said. “Your history & heritage program is great. I wish I’d had a history teacher like you when I was here.”

Matthew had only a couple minutes of quiet before Victor Washington, the Development Director, was in the doorway, a thick folder under one arm. “You wanted the latest on the fundraising campaign,” he said. He tapped the folder. “Got it right here.”

Of course, Matthew knew most of what was in Victor’s spreadsheets and charts. As head of school, he had to deal with more than student misbehavior; teaching, and teachers; campus sports, boards and committees. Besides all that, every day, maybe every hour, he thought about raising money. 

From the outside, the school might look timeless and solid after almost two centuries in its wooded campus. But from inside, every single year, so much had to be paid for: buildings built, painted, trimmed, fixed, rebuilt, replaced. Teachers were underpaid, but their paychecks still added up. Tuition and fees kept going higher, but never quite caught up with expenses. 

So Matthew, like every head of school, thought about fundraising every day. A head who didn’t was soon out of a job.

Matthew nodded reflexively as Victor said the money for a new swimming pool was on track; and the historic meetinghouse restoration was almost funded.  These were places the alumni remembered, and things they had had fun doing: easy to raise money for. 

“But where it’s still heavy lifting,” Victor was saying, “is the NIT.”

Matthew sighed. The NIT–or New Initiatives in Teaching. His favorite, and it was tougher. Computers were obsolete as soon as you turned them on. Software  needed updates almost every week. And if something was focused on the past–like Teacher Ellen’s history & heritage plans– or you wanted more scholarships for poor or non-rich Quaker students–the first question behind closed doors was, “How will it help my kid (or grand-kid) get into Harvard?”

Like pulling teeth, and it never stopped. 

These scholarships were also close to Matthew’s heart. Victor’s too: a scholarship student who finished top of his class. Now he looked over the newest report, frowning. “We need some new ideas for this,” he said, “some way to put it across better.”

Matthew shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah,” he said,”you’re right.”

He turned toward the window behind his desk. An old clock was on a mantel next to it. Across the grass, he could see the corner of the meetinghouse. Beyond it cars were parked along the road to the campus entrance. 

As he watched, two white campus vans drove down the road. Matthew shook his head at them. From this distance, they looked shiny and new. 

“You see those vans, Victor?” He pointed. “We had to put a new transmission in one last month. And the U-joint in the other one could go any day. Several thousand bucks in all.”

He turned back to Victor. “But without them we have no field trips, for Teacher Ellen’s program. The kids like those trips. And getting their hands into American and Quaker history is–“

A discreet tap at the door. Doris, his secretary. “Excuse me, Matthew,” she said. “You’d want to see this.” She handed him an oversize yellow post-it note.

Doris understood how things worked, so Matthew frowned down at the note as Doris retreated. At a signal from him, She shut the door quietly behind her.

“Victor,” he said quietly. “It’s Mrs. Mickleson.”

Victor’s eyes widened. But he looked confused. This should be good news. Yet he could hear alarm in the way Matthew spoke the name of the school’s biggest donor.

“What–?” Victor asked.

Matthew read from the note. “She’s here, outside.” He glanced up. “No,” he added, “we were not expecting her. She told Doris she was in the city for a board meeting of the Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and asked her driver to stop here before they went back to Washington. She said she has something urgent to show me.”

He considered the note again. “Doris has very good radar about this sort of thing,” he said. “It sounds like a problem.”

Victor hurried the reports back into their folder. “You want me to go?” He asked.

Matthew hesitated. It might be wiser to see her by himself. But in Victor and his work,  Matthew thought he glimpsed a future head of school, either here or another Quaker school. So maybe he should see this too, whatever it was. 

Matthew shook his head. “You’ve been working with her,” He said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Met with her twice at the Foundation office,” Victor said. He checked his phone calendar. “Have an appointment in Washington next week.” He paused. “Did have, anyway.”

“Better stay,” Matthew said. “We’ll see what it’s about. If I need one-on-one with her, I’ll say so.”

A moment later, the three of them had finished a round of hearty greetings, and Doris had asked if anyone needed coffee or juice, which was declined with forced cheer.

Mrs. Mickleson was near sixty, dressed in a subdued but well-tailored pantsuit, a single string of pearls, and a black leather portfolio.  Matthew knew she was not typically condescending or imperious. But he could sense she was all business today. Curiously, though, she also had gloves on.

She launched right in. “Matthew, I won’t take much of your time. There’s another board meeting in Bethesda at four o’clock, that I mustn’t miss.”

“How can we help?” Matthew asked.

Instead of answering directly, Mrs. Mickleson said, “My granddaughter Amy Singleton spent the weekend with us, and she talked nonstop about the school. She loves it here.”

“Glad to hear that,” Matthew said, though he had a definite sense there was a “But” coming.

“And she had some of her chums over for a swim, and that night I heard them out on the patio talking and carrying on about a field trip her class took into the city.”

Matthew wanted to smile and nod; something kept him from it.

“They thought I’d gone to bed,” she said. “But I peeked out when they went off to the kitchen for snacks, and there on a table was this–“

She flipped open a silver-tipped latch on the black portfolio, dipped two gloved fingers into it, and lifted out a thick plastic zip-lock bag. She held it up for them to see. 

Matthew was struck by how out of place the bag looked. The plastic was thick but translucent, with white patches at the top as labels.

It looked like something from a police evidence locker, or a hospital morgue, somehow mislaid in the gloved hand of a model from Tiffany’s. The juxtaposition was so visually absurd it was almost funny.

Mrs. Mickelson was not the least bit amused. “These are some of the souvenirs Amy and her class secretly brought back from that field trip, which I gather was to an abandoned cemetery in the inner city.”

She pointed at it with her other hand, highlighting a thin cylinder. “That tube, Matthew, is a drug addict’s syringe, complete with a used and bloodstained needle.”

The pointer finger moved down past a round beige lump. “And this,” she grimaced, “this is a used condom, evidently left behind by one of the prostitutes who ply their trade there.”

She turned a withering gaze on Victor. “Mr. Washington, was this, er, excursion part of the new program you told me about? What’s it called–??”

Victor cleared his throat. “Uh, history and heritage, Mrs. Mickelson,” he said softly.

Matthew couldn’t let him take the rap here. “We think very highly of the program,” he said. “It often serves to bring together critical issues of the past and present in vivid, concrete ways.” 

As soon as the word “vivid” was out of his mouth, Matthew regretted it.

“‘Vivid,'” Mrs. Mickleson repeated for emphasis. “I’ll say.” She waved the bag for emphasis, then dropped it back into the portfolio. Clicking the clasp, she looked from Victor to Matthew. Her lips were tight.

“Matthew,” she said flatly, “One of Amy’s classmates claimed she found bullet shell casings from some sort of pistol, but a teacher took them.”

She stifled a shudder. “I believe you know, Matthew, that I am no reactionary. The long  record of progressive Quaker values is a big part of this school’s appeal. And both the Foundation and I have long supported research and advocacy for forward-looking and humane drug and social policies.” An eyebrow arched. “The Foundation director testified before the Senate just last year. 

“But this–” she gestured toward the portfolio — “Amy and her chums treated them like carnival prizes. But do you realize how dangerous those — those objects are? Bloody needles? Germ and virus-infested debris from commercial sex? Bullets?”

She leaned forward. “Do I have to spell it out?” 

Her eyes were wide, as the memory of Amy and her chums in close proximity to any of those objects closed in.

“No,” Matthew shook his head, a hollow feeling settling in his gut. “No, you don’t.”

Mrs. Mickelson sat back stiffly in her chair. “Amy’s sister Bethany is In Eighth grade in Bethesda. We’ve looked at Westtown and Sidwell, but she wants to follow her big sister here. And they have cousins in Baltimore who say the same thing.”

She tightened her grip on the portfolio, and stood up abruptly. “But Matthew, I couldn’t possibly support anything like this.” She raised a hand for emphasis. “If they need field trips, Washington is within reach, and so is New York. I’m sure they would be received by the most progressive and responsible policy groups in these fields, and there are model programs they can also visit. Safely. I–“

The hallway class bell clanged and cut her off. Mrs. Mickelson took it as a signal. Giving each of the men a single pump handshake, she turned to the door. 

“Matthew,” she said, lifting the portfolio, “I truly respect the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure you bring to your work here. But I must remind you that those adventures involve some of the most precious parts of my life–and that of others like me.” She pulled the door open. “Amy and your other students are here to prepare for life, not to risk it.”

“I’ll see to it right away,” Matthew said. But she was gone. 

Victor closed the door, leaned against it, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Whoa,” he murmured. “That was, um, vivid.”

“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled, and realized he was sweating too. “Victor,” he said, “we need some time to decompress and absorb this, but we’ll talk again after classes are done this afternoon.”

“Decompress,” Victor repeated, and gave a low whistle. “Totally.” He opened the door.

“Oh, and on your way,” Matthew said, “can you stop by the History room, and ask Teacher Ellen to come down?”

“Check,” Victor said. The door clicked behind him.

Matthew turned again to the window, his fingers moving reflexively to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar.

One of the campus vans was now parked next to the meetinghouse, while the driver carried in some cardboard boxes.

Another field trip. Friday, which was tomorrow. He sighed. Not a chance for that now.

Matthew dropped his hands. No. The tie and collar had to stay tight.

He crossed the office to a coat closet. A mirror hung on the back side of its door. He looked into it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and arranged his features into the disciplinary poker face. Yes, he practiced. 

It wasn’t quite right for this next encounter. But he couldn’t think of how to add a note of compassion without undermining the hard necessity of what had to be done.

The tap came on the office door.

He took the chair behind  his desk. “Come in.” 

Ellen entered, smiling.

Matthew opened a folder on the desk, and looked down without seeing what was in it.

Compared to what he had to do now, he thought, dealing with Connie and Kevin for writhing around on an old mattress — was it really only a couple of hours ago? — that was a piece of cake.



More about some actual events that helped inspire this story here, here & here.

The post Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Tue, 03/20/2018 - 10:58am

Wind blasted cedar
clinging on rocky outcrop

A stunted
of straining
for nourishment

Random dead branches
some with sparse green shoots
Last vestiges squeezing past flesh
lifeless from

Tortured twists

Not a beautiful column
adorning a formal garden
admired for its symmetry


Failing to conform
to beauty’s standard



gift for God


Categories: Blogs

So What I Said Was: Jesus -- The April Fool

Holy Ordinary (Brent Bill) - Mon, 03/19/2018 - 7:28am

I did something foolish -- or at least unusual -- for Quakers yesterday. I preached from the lectionary at our local meeting. The reading was John 12:20-33. What follows comes from my study of that text -- thought it might not seem like it.
Easter falls on April 1 – April Fool’s Day. April 1st is a day for joking around.  Which is one reason Nancy and I got married the day after April 1st. This joking around is an old practice.  You see April Fool’s started almost five hundred years ago.  
In sixteenth-century France, the start of the new year was observed on April first.  New Year’s then was celebrated in much the same way as it is today with parties and dancing into the wee hours.  Then, in 1562, Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar for the Christian world.  In his calendar the new year fell on January first.  There were some people, however, who hadn't heard or didn't believe the change in the date, so they continued celebrating New Year's Day on April first.  Other people played tricks on them and called them "April fools." They sent them on "fool's errands" or tried to make them believe that something false was true.  In France today, April first is called "Poisson d'Avril."  French children fool their friends by taping a paper fish to their friends' backs. When the "young fool" discovers this trick, the prankster yells "Poisson d'Avril!" (April Fish!) – which doesn’t have quite the same ring as “April Fool.”
April 1stas a day of foolishness is celebrated around the world – with regional variations.  In Scotland, for example, April Fool's Day is actually celebrated for two days.  The second day is devoted to pranks involving the posterior.  So it is called “Taily Day.” 
All this foolishness comes to a head on April 1 – and I’m happy that it falls this year on Sunday.  Not because of the silliness (which we often call foolishness), but because of the real foolishness that God used that we remember at this time of year.  As 1 Corinthians 1:27 reminds us “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”
In no way is that more true then it is as we look toward Easter.  Easter centers around foolishness.  No, not human foolishness – though it may give us some comfort to think that way about Pilate, Herod, Judas, the “crucify him” crowd or even the thick headed disciples.  But the foolishness I’m thinking of is foolishness to the extreme – the folly of Jesus.  It may make us uncomfortable to think of him that way, but Jesus was the ultimate fool.  At least by the world’s standards. 
Think about it – what sane man would talk about being “one with the Father” and mean it?  What great teacher would joke about camels and eyes of needles or tell tales of foolish fathers who forgive even prodigal sons?  And what rational person would give himself up, not for his family or friends, but the very people who hated him and despised him?  As Paul writes to the Romans: “You see, …when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
What a fantastically foolish thing to do.  I doubt any of us can truly comprehend what doing this meant for Jesus.  David Citino, a poet, helped me to understand it a bit better when I read his poem “Situation No. 33:  The Feast”You’re told the ingredientshave been assembled: for the sake of love,wine and bread, fennel, honey and leeks;laurel and bay to represent your political importance and way with words;a sampling of fabulous beasts and birds.Fruits and meats to symbolize labor;salt, the apple and lamb.
You’re told the entertainmentwill consist of your slow dismembermentto the pulse of bass drums,the plodding cadence of Gregorian chant,screams of your parents and children.
You’re told it will hurtlike nothing else, but after it’s overyour very best friends will take youhome with them and place youon altars in the midst of music and yearning,place you near fire, teach their childrento sing your name.
Do you accept?
The answer is intelligently clear – no, we do not accept.  What kind of fools do you take us for?  Fools like Christ?  Foolish, foolish Jesus.  His actions confound us to this day, if we really stop and think about them. 
Yes, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise;” – if we think we are wise.  The cosmic Christ comes out of chaos and creates everliving love – calling us home to the Father.  “Ally, ally in Free” he calls, “the rules are suspended.  No one is out.  No one is “it.”  Run home.  Run home.”  He is the “April Fool” of whom Noel Stookey sings:April FoolYou wear your heart on your sleeveAnd though they laugh when they leaveYou call it Love and I believe (you)
April FoolWhy must you always play the clown?You have the edge you laid it downYou give it up without a sound...
Oh April FoolHow can the say "love is cruel"?They catch the ring but drop the jewel.Like a teardrop in a pool...
April FoolAs the heart shows through the eyesBefore you were born you were recognizedAnd unto the losers comes their Prize.
Oh April FoolEven as the hands were washed, you knewWe'd free the thief instead of you
April FoolYou said the Father was in YouYou said we know not what we doForgive us...April Fool.
Who, indeed, is the true April Fool – the Christ who comes turning mourning into dancing, dying for his enemies, baking fish by the seaside for his friends, or us, so wise by the world’s standards, who guard what we have, repay slights with interest, and pray loud, but not so well?Let us, when we arrive at this April Fool’s Day, remember the greatest Fool of all – the everliving Christ who comes dancing from the grave, who defeats death that we might live, who forgives all prodigals, who gives himself for others.  May we become, as Paul urges us, “Fool’s for Christ’s sake,” giving our lives for each other and Him.
And that is no joke.

Categories: Blogs

Love is the hardest lesson in

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 7:38am

Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.

William Penn, 1693

Categories: Blogs

Only Quakerism?

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Thu, 03/15/2018 - 5:26am

Over on the QuakerQuaker discussions, Oregon Friend Kirby Urner wonders whether we need to think of our Quakerism less an identity built around membership status and more as a way of life, No Quakers, Only Quakerism:

I’d be happy to see a branch (fork) of Quakerism which dispensed with membership on the grounds that there’s no way to “be” a Friend, only Friendly, as a modifier to one’s actions, as fleeting as the Now Moment itself. You “are” a Friend now, and again now, but it takes work to “stay in the moment” as such.  It’s a practice.  You don’t get to rest on your laurels, as the Romans put it.  It’d be fun to see how that turned out.


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Is our Quaker Peace Testimony an historical artifact or a living witness to our faith?

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 3:07pm

Is our Quaker Peace Testimony an historical artifact or a living witness to our faith?

If we aren’t living our faith, then the 1660 Peace Testimony is simply an historical artifact. Like the old musty books in our Meeting library that sit behind glass, mostly unread. They look impressive and make us feel good about ourselves, but if we don’t read them and take the words to heart, they might as well be wall paper.

Categories: Blogs

Authentic anecdotes

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 9:07pm

I have something of fascination with the phenomenon of urban myths and misattributed quotations. In the January Friends Journal I used the opening column to track down “Live simply so that others may simply live,” a phrase that recurred in many of the articles in the issue (the theme was Quaker Lifestyles). Among Quakers, one of the more oft-told tales involves a mad prophet and his fair-haired noble protege…

It was late April on the northern moors and the winter had been especially harsh. Flowers were just starting to peek out of the ground as the farmers looked tested whether the soil was soft enough yet to plow. The nobleman dismounted his horse and asked the hamlet’s blacksmith for directions.

It has been a long journey. His ruffled silk shirt was dirty and full of the smells of a dozens of overnight accomodations in pig barns and lean-tos of the English Midlands. His most-prized possession was spotless, however: the silver sword given him by his father, the admiral, last year on his eighteenth birthday. It layed sheathed in its hand-stiched sheath.

The blacksmith pointed the foreigner to the path that crossed the dark moors toward the hillside of Judge Fell’s estate. The manor house was the de facto headquarters of the new cult that was scandalizing the Kingdom, the Children of the Light. A short ten minute walk and our traveler was face-to-face with the man he had come so far to see.

A long tumble of rehersed speaches came out of the young man’s mouth as George Fox warily sized him up. The young William Penn wanted to join the movement. Fox knew it would be a coup for the Children of the Light. Penn’s father was one of the wealthiest men in England and the family money could buy protection, fame, and land in the new colonies.

But Penn wasn’t quite ready. He had that sword. It would be a grave disrespect to his father to leave it or give it away. “Friend George, what can I do?” The wise Fox knew that Penn was led to join. With a little encouragement, it was a matter of time the new apprentice adopted their pacifist principles. Fox cleared his throat and answered: “Wear thy sword as long as thee can, young William.” Before tears could well in each man’s eyes they turned their attention to logistics of a preaching trip to London. On their way out a few days later, Penn quietly slipped back into a blacksmith shop and gave away his sword. By the time they left the Yorkshire, farmers were working the spring soil with their new silver plowshares.

It is a beautiful story. Unfortunately it’s also fake.

Both George Fox and William Penn left behind dozens of volumes of writings and memoirs. Their friendship was one of the most significant relationships for each of them. Surely such a foundational story would have made it to print. Paul Buckley tracked down the story in “Time To Lay Down William Penn’s Sword” in the December 2003 Friends Journal.

The sword story is fake but it is also somehow true. Buckley calls it a “authentic anecdote.” Every year Friends Journal gets wonderful essays whose narrative turns on the story of William Penn’s sword. We can’t run them without correction so it falls on me to tell authors that the scene never took place. Occasionally I’m told it doesn’t matter that it’s not true.

What is the deeper myth inside our beloved tall tales? First: they depend on the celebrity status of their characters. If I substituted more obscure early Friends in the sword story—George Whitehead asking Solomon Eccles, say—I doubt it would be as compelling or get repeated as often.

Fame is an odd draw for modern-day Friends. There’s a baker’s-dozen of famous-enough Friends upon which we graft these sorts of stories—John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry. And the story-telling began early: editors would chop out the embarrasing bits of recently-departed Friends’ journals. Dreams would get snipped out. Accounts of miraculous healings would disappear.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Penn/Fox story dates back to the moment when American Friends split. The denomination’s origin story was fracturing. Paul Buckley thinks the sword story prefigured the tolerance and forbearance of the Hicksite Friends. Philadelphia-area Friends healed that particular wound almost three-quarters of a century ago. What does it say about us today that this tale is still so popular? Related reading, I tracked down another authentic anecdote in 2016, “Bring people to Christ / Leave them there.”

Categories: Blogs

On the State of Religious Discourse at Haverford

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 12:59pm

This one only tangentially skims Friends but it’s an interesting case. A independent student website at the historically-Quaker Haverford College decided not to do a special issue on religion and one student penned an article about why he disagrees: On the State of Religious Discourse at Haverford

Haverford is not immune to this plague: we too relegate religious knowledge to a dimension of the personal. Considering the religious history and Quaker roots of our institution, this is particularly troubling. Haverford sells itself as a Quaker institution, and there is a sense in which this is true, as there are certain traditions at Haverford (speaking out of silence, quorum, confrontation, etc.), and yet the school split from organized Quakerism long ago, and one need only look at the last year to understand that we make decisions as an institution that are quite separable from any promoted quaker values.

Haverford’s official statement on its Quaker identity is a rather strained two sentences, but in recent years it’s developed a Quaker Affairs program, which is currently led by the awesome Walter Sullivan. The program’s Friend in Residence program has brought in some great Quaker thinkers on campus.

More on this topic soon as Friends Journal’s May issue will ask “What Are Quaker Values Anyway?” (Some of my preliminary thought are here).

Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Mon, 03/12/2018 - 10:55pm


Don’t weep for me


I am bliss



Lost to your senses


Still here in your soul



Praying for you


Till you too return home


And freed from physical blather


We can

in all innocence



Loving boundlessly



For now

reach inside


And again


Till you

feel me


Curling round your heart

Categories: Blogs

A Friend’s journey to BDS

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Mon, 03/12/2018 - 4:22pm

This week’s Friends Journal feature is a piece by Lauren Brownlee, who’s written many book reviews for us, but only one feature before this (“One Drop in the Wave of Liberation” about the new African American history museum in D.C.). This time she talks about one of the more contentious issues of our day, the political situation in Israel and Palestine, but does it very much in a Quaker context.

What make it Quaker? Well, she shares her personal story of weighing the sides on the issue, going from one viewpoint to another until she finds one that she can own. The process of discernment is careful and not linear. It listens to partisans without itself becoming partisan. As I write in my opening column, “Her answer may not be your answer, but we hope her model of discernment is useful to readers.” She writes:

My greatest fear is hurting people, and my new friend had made it clear that the worst consequence of BDS is not inefficacy; it is causing more pain to a people who have already greatly suffered. I did have the opportunity early in the gathering to voice these obstacles to fully embracing the BDS Movement, and in fact, we all shared concerns that we had heard about advocating for the movement

A Loving Quaker Journey to BDS

A Friend struggles to find a position on the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions Movement.

Friends Journal
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Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sat, 03/10/2018 - 2:56pm

When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.

Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.

One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous  trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color. 

That second march, by the way, is still going on.

I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.

But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.

Let me explain.

In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.

And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.

Selma, 1965, ready to march: Front, left to right: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Andrew Young. Behind and right of Young, me.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.

James Orange, at right behind Dr. King.

 “Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”

Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned. 

“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”

His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”

“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.

I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first to die in the Selma campaign, shot by a state trooper in February, 1965 while trying to stop the beating of his grandfather. The shooting hasn’t stopped: his headstone, by a state highway near his hometown of Marion, is pocked and pitted with bullet marks. This photo is from 2014, 49 years later.

Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops. 

The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.

That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.

 Several years later, while  doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis. 

All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.

This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.

But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.

A white supremacy billboard near the Pettus Bridge, celebrating the career of Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest, who later was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The motto under Forrest’s image is “Keep The Skeer On ‘Em”

I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.

A neo-Confederate supporter’s car, in Selma, 2014. At the right, below the confederate flag, reads the motto: “In the coming civil war, be a man among men.”

On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?

The passage quoted by this U.S. Senator from Georgia, republican David Perdue, was typical doublespeak dog-whistle hate: “Let his days be few, and another take his place of leadership” the quote from Psalm 109 begins. And then it adds: “9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 12 May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. 13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. . . . “(and on it goes).

Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.

When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:

On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.

A busy office building in 1965, stands empty in downtown Selma, in late 2014; one of many.

 At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.

Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.

One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.

There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me  that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)

Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective.  Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.

The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. Lewis helped lead the original Selma march on March 7, 1965 which was attacked by police, deputies and state troopers, leaving him with a fractured skull.

The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.

But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.

Hope won’t stay behind the barriers.


More about my time in the movement is in this book, available here.

The post Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

There will always be conflict. It’s

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Sat, 03/10/2018 - 8:37am

There will always be conflict. It’s easy to get distracted by fires. It helps to be a calming presence in these situations to keep the organization focused and keep your colleagues at peace.

— Colin Saxton [Source]

Categories: Blogs

Your Hand in Front of Your Face

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Fri, 03/09/2018 - 10:08pm

The second post of a new blog, Musings of a Returning Quaker, was posted yesterday. In Your Hand in Front of Your Face, Josh Talbot connects the Gospel with the need for economic betterment:

Singing along with a hymn does not pay rent. Sitting in Silent Worship revitalizes your soul and connection to the Light. However, it does not lessen the burden of needing to eat. The question we must ask ourselves as people of faith is what can we do in order to bring these poor (literally) people back to church. From my perspective as a Hicksite Friend the answer is simple, to turn to the Quaker tradition of activism.

Longtime readers will know I struggle too with how Friends can those who don’t have the luxury of Sunday morning free time. I wrote about this in a December 2012 article in Friends Journal (the only feature I’ve written since becoming senior editor). I was looking back to a 11-month period in which I had worked the night shift in my local supermarket. I’m always glad to see a new Quaker blog and this one is promising.

Your Hand in Front of Your Face.

There are hundreds of articles and blogs about why Americans are increasingly not attending church. In my experience,…
Categories: Blogs
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