message from 01-04-15: “Abiding and Pruning”; with scripture– John 15:1-12

In June, I shared some information with folks at meeting for business regarding the current demographic make up of our community…It was that when I considered the members and attenders who we saw in worship or heard from– at least on an occasional basis, I counted over 10 people whose ages were above 80 years old; at least 7 who were over 85; and about 4 over 90. Highlighting these statistics– that reflect an aging population –opened up for me a consideration of other ongoing changes in the meeting. We seemed to be gathering less people at our fundraiser dinners; as well as extra curricular events like luncheons, book studies, and trips that also attract a smaller number of participants. Our efforts this year at recruiting folks to serve on our standing committees and to fulfill leadership roles have yielded MANY blank slots. There are less people consistently in worship, and our newsletter has ceased to exist. Now, the ongoing changes are not all negative. We are a group that over the past few years have obtained a better handle on the financial numbers—expenditures and income. We have successfully planned and calendared fundraisers each year at a brainstorming session. Our efforts at communication now include a website, a Facebook page, and extensive use of email. We have a small core of young children who are so interested and engaged in their Sunday school class. In the fall, our series on Quaker Faith and Practice yielded a relatively large group who met for discussion after worship each Sunday. All of these changes –for better or for worse—indicate that we are not the same meeting as we were 10 years ago or 5 years ago or even last year. These changes have also culminated in a number of informal conversations that expressed concerns about the future of our meeting…Our goal here today is to bring all these variables into a forum where as many of us as possible can worship, discuss, and discern a way forward in the light of all our transitions.

The scripture reading we heard earlier from John is set in the context of a time of turmoil and anxiety among the followers of Jesus. These are a part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples just after the Last Supper. His comments are given in the form of a farewell discourse, which is a common literary practice of that time that gives the last testament or farewell remarks and instructions of a famous or important person.

One of the major objectives of this discourse or speech is to prepare and equip the disciples to carry on after Jesus departs. Believers today understand these words to be an ongoing encouragement to modern disciples, which describe and guide our efforts to remain a faithful and viable and life giving community within the ebbs and tides of an ever-changing world.

Jesus describes our communities—then and now—as a living, breathing, growing, changing plant. Jesus himself is the vine—the source of all the branches; the core of the plant that makes it a plant. Disciples—then and now—are branches, that when connected to the vine, grow and produce fruit. God is the gardener who tends the whole thing—fertilizing, caring for, loving, and pruning—all over time to keep the plant healthy, and growing and developing and producing.

When I consider our meeting, set against this description of Jesus’, I envision a beautiful plant originating from a vine that we call Christ, Source, Word, Spirit, or Light with a number of branches heading in a number of directions in various phases of fruit development. If we follow through with this illustration, we, as faithful productive branches, will be pruned by the Gardener, as we abide—or stay connected or persevere or remain with the Vine. I also am led to consider the changes we have been through and the changes we will continue to experience as a part of that pruning process.

It is challenging for me to consider that pruning as something positive. I really love the good old days, and the people and activities that comprise them. As bible commentator Barbara J. Essex says: The paradox is that the vinegrower must cut away lifeless, unproductive branches and prune those branches that are productive. At some point, all the branches need to be cut. Young vines are not allowed to produce fruit for the first few years. This means a drastic pruning is needed each season so the plant can develop to its fullest. Vineyards, then, are long-term investments and labor intensive…The mystery of these actions—cleansing and pruning—is that the plant looks useless and dead. Yet the branches’ connection to the vine ensures new life and new growth. When God is doing the maintenance, we are assured that new life and new growth will result. Despite what the plant looks like, its connection to the vine renders it alive and not dead.”

New York Yearly Meeting Superintendent Christopher Sammond describes last year’s pruning of his apple orchard in this way: “When we moved onto our property the old apple orchard had not been pruned for many years. I invited Friend Ron Peterson to come take a look. He removed all the dead trees, and then pruned those that remained. I was shocked when I looked at the pruned trees. I thought they would die as well. So much had been cut and what was left, looked ill equipped to grow and develop, let alone bear fruit.” When Christopher confronted Ron about his methods, Ron said that the goal of someone who prunes is to make sure that each branch get the benefit of direct sunlight. The result of Ron’s pruning of Christopher’s apple trees was a GREAT ABUNDANCE of apples this fall. The neighbors say they have never seen this old orchard look so good and healthy.

Another account of someone’s pruning efforts was that the one apple tree in their woods was one fall, pruned “by the book”, which means seemingly drastic trimming was done to it. A severe ice storm late in the spring annihilated all the surrounding tress. The pruned apple tree not only survived but thrived and produced a great amount of fruit.

If we are in fact being pruned a bit, let us work to abide well within this environment of God’s love. As previously mentioned, the John passage goes on to describe abiding as remaining connected to the Vine, which is Jesus. Another synonym used for abide is “wait”. As Quakers we understand waiting to not be a passive phase, but to entail active seeking and learning and being made ready to receive the nurture that promotes growth. As disciples are nurtured and prepared for bearing fruit, “Jesus invites those disciples to enter into a more profound relationship by urging them to abide in him. Rather than sounding a note of despair, Jesus speaks a word of hope and trust for their souls. Reassurance comes from remaining close to Jesus, weathering whatever storms may come. Jesus tells the disciples to abide in him, as he abides in them. In his translation The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene H. Peterson uses the words, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” The notion of making a home, of finding the heart’s true home in Jesus, brings a settled peace to the turmoil that often characterizes our lives.”

My hope and prayer for us as a faith community is that we see this season of change in our meeting not as turmoil or disorder or an ending, but rather as the opportunity to discover and experience new ways of producing the fruit of abiding in that divine presence which enables, encourages, prunes, and challenges us so that we work to bring forth the Reign of God in this time and place with those of us who are here, as well as with those who will join us.

The paper of queries that we distributed last week outlines a way to engage in a process that can illuminate our vineyard with the Light necessary to grow fruit as disciples of the one who is our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. I also want to mention at this time that we are accompanied in our efforts today as we consider these queries, by the thoughts, prayers and Light of a rich and diverse collection of many who know and love this meeting Quakers and non-Quakers alike.

As we continue in worship, I am going to offer a couple of the queries for your consideration, along with some personal comments that have resulted from 10 years of ministry among you. You are encouraged to record your own responses to these queries for us to utilize as we continue to discuss and discern together.

Who are we called to be?

What is the mission or purpose or reason for existing as a faith community?

To experience and share WITH EVERYONE the mercy, grace, love and peace of God from a programmed Quaker perspective.

What values will shape and guide our work together? Our testimonies are a good start.

What is God’s Vision for us? To invite, engage, support those who will accept it from us; to be ACTIVE in the community…to be in prayer for those in our community.

Where are we?

What is the specific geographical, social cultural context in which we are located?

IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR VILLAGE!!!

A community affected by the close by recreational opportunities, increasingly culturally diverse population.

What are the needs of the people around us? Many need basic necessities, treatment for addictions, support for young families.

What issues are unique to our community? Pollution of the Hudson River, the presence of a path that provided heroin and other drugs to this area, the need for a new source of employment.

When are we?

What is going on in this season of our history?

What changes, issues, opportunities can we see appearing on the horizon?

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“Embracing the Light”, message for 12-21-14, with Luke 15:1-10

Last week’s suggested Advent Activity was to share “Random Acts of Kindness” throughout the week. Did anybody try this? My efforts ended up being mainly toward store clerks who seem to bear the brunt of people’s impatience and frustration during the holidays. It felt nice to treat these folks like the real human beings that they are. This week, the activity involves writing personal notes to stick in the gifts we’re giving. I hope we all get a chance to try this…

Our scripture this week, for the topic “Embracing the Light” was another unusual selection for Advent. And, like last week’s, it made more sense when I considered the whole passage in which the verse was located. That verse: 15:8 says—“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” When we read the entire portion of the chapter in which that verse resides, we discover that it’s a part of a couple of scenarios set up by Jesus to show God’s diligence in searching for what is lost, and God’s delight at when what is missing has been recovered.

As I considered the passage’s connection to what it might mean to embrace the Light, I envisioned both the searchers as they discovered the sheep and then the coin. It is easy to imagine that their discovery would include an embrace of some sort…of both the lamb and the coin.

To embrace something is to hold it close; to encircle it physically, to surround it. Those things that are embraced are received gladly and included or incorporated into whoever or whatever the embracer is. In this scripture it is important to notice WHO does the searching and embracing, as well as WHO the recipients are. Shepherds and women are both stigmatized by this culture as unclean and undesirable. Both the lost sheep and the lost coin have little relative value in the whole scheme of things; but both are LOST and have a value BECAUSE they are lost.

The lesson in the searching and finding is that God values any and all who search, and receives ANY lost with mercy. The embrace of those who seek and those who are found reflect this inclusivity. As we EMBRACE the light, we are working—as God does to include and love EVERYONE.

God=Word=Light=Christ=LOVE à all things

I want to share a story that shows the embrace of the Light. An embrace that brings unselfish and undiscriminating Love at Christmas…

Read: “Christmas Day in the Morning” by Pearl S. Buck

“Showing It Like It Is” -message for 12-14-14…scripture– Luke 8:4-18

Let’s start by considering the results of the “advent action” suggestion from last week… Do you remember what it was? Cleaning our bedroom windows so that the light can shine through. I must confess that I did not do my bedroom windows; mainly because they’re on the second floor and would require getting up on a long ladder to do the outside–and THAT’s where it’s really dirty. But, I did clean inside and out the windows in my kitchen. I gaze from them multiple times a day, so that effort was really worthwhile.

This week our action suggestion involves doing random acts of kindness, and we’ll check back next Sunday to see how we did with that one.

Our focus for this morning, the third Sunday in Advent, is shining the Light. Again this week, as soon as I read that phrase, I harkened back to the Inner Light week in the “What DO the Quakes Say?!” series. I have a clear memory of hearing the words of Quaker scholar Michael Birkel in our video from that week, where he said “The Light was not simply a cozy fire to warm ourselves with on a wintry day. The Light was a beacon and this beacon spread its light over all those aspects of ourselves that we might prefer to admit weren’t there. The Light reveals to us—among other things—our own capacity to do terrible things, to do great harm in this world. And so the Light was powerful but it was also terrifying.”

Now I am not out to diminish our images of illumination that comfort and warm and support us. But, I do want to offer that while the light that shown on and through Baby Jesus was beautiful and miraculous, it also totally disrupted the status quo of those who allowed their lives to be altered by it. Disrupted in often uncomfortable and unhappy ways; like understanding that the kingdom that had broken into human lives would displace the wealthy, powerful and successful. That it would allow the impoverished and oppressed in society a place at the table of God’s providence and love. By the same token, our efforts for a warm, cheery, prosperous, delightful holiday may need a few adjustments to accommodate the shining beacon of God’s Light.

I’ve come upon a few descriptions over the past couple of weeks, that offer surprising, uncomfortable, miraculous results of the shining of God’s mercy, peace, justice and love into our settings and lives.

Tony Robinson commenting on a verse from Psalm 79 which says “Pay back our neighbors seven times over, right where it hurts, for the insults they used on you Lord”, offers the following perspective:

“The 79th Psalm is pretty raw stuff. There’s this verse, telling God it’s “payback time.” There are cries for vengeance and divine wrath.  

 

As Advent begins and our thoughts turn to mangers, Bethlehem, and choirs of angels, this psalm seems, at best, discordant. There’s not a thing about it that’s pretty or sweet.  

 

Such raw, desperate prayer was prompted by the violation of all that was holy. The Temple had been desecrated and destroyed. The people have been slaughtered. (“They’ve left your servants’ bodies as food for the birds” v. 2). Their enemies gloat.  

 

There’s a tendency in the church, perhaps particularly in a season like Advent, to censor out such realities and such raw emotions. Church becomes a place to be polite and on our best behavior or to be only upbeat and happy.  

 

While acting on the feelings expressed by this Psalm can be a mistake, it is also a mistake to censor them from our experience and from our faith. What is holy is violated daily in our world. Children are abused and neglected. Lives are tossed on the scrap heap of unemployment. Once lovely neighborhoods are turned to ugly wastelands. People with power use it to feather their own nest, not to serve the common good.  

 

A faith that does not tell it like it is, that does not reckon with evil, risks becoming sentimental and irrelevant, especially in this present time.  

 

So, while I don’t find Psalm 79 to be easy reading or praying, I am grateful for it. I am grateful for a faith that is honest enough to tell it like it is and to submit the truth, along with our feelings of outrage and betrayal, to God.”

 

 

Another devotional by Kenneth Samuel recommends being attentive—or letting the light shine– on those people in our lives we take for granted:

“How often do we express our gratitude for the people in our lives who have been with us consistently through every trial, triumph, twist and turn we’ve had to face?

 

Most of us would admit that our list of constant companions and steadfast friends is not long at all. We are blessed if we can count one or two. But the gratitude we owe those one or two is quite immeasurable.

 

The Advent season is a good time to give thanks to and for those people in our lives who have not been seasonal in their relationships with us. Their hands have always been outstretched to help us; their shoulders have been the ones we’ve leaned on with dependable regularity; their presence has always assured us that even during our darkest days, we were not alone.”

 

And finally, I found this comment on an old familiar TV show one that speaks to the illuminating power of the light as that which exposes my own internal darkness and doubt, which allows me to become preoccupied with my own issues and biases. You see, what we see and what we hear in life depends NOT totally upon what’s happening outside us, but rather how we interpret them through what is inside us:

In one of the All in the Family episodes that aired some years ago Edith and Archie are attending Edith’s high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck who, unlike his earlier days. had now become excessively obese. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but remarkably Edith doesn’t seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck has become. Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she says in her whiny voices “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person.” Archie looks at her with a disgusted expression and says: “You’re a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp. Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad.”

I thought the scripture selected for this “Shining the Light” theme– which was Luke 8:16 –was a bit strange, until I did some research. It made a whole lot more sense when I realized that it was a part of the whole passage we heard earlier. But even with that clarifying things, the parable of the sower and the seeds is a weird Advent text.

Further investigation helped me to understand the connection. One Bible scholar says:

“Just as one sows in order to reap a harvest, so also one lights a lamp in order that it may give light. One does not [plant] so that the birds may feed on the seed or so that it may be choked by the thorns. Similarly, one does not light a lamp in order to extinguish it under a jar or to hide it, ludicrously under a bed. The purpose for the sowing—God’s purpose for the Word—is that it effect change.” Remember my little graphic from last week? If the word equals the light, then the parable is about spreading the word OR the light… Shining the light can only matter IF by shining, the light is received AND UTILIZED. The responder (to the light) has an obligation for understanding, openness, and making a decisive reaction to that illumination. Advent is about preparing to respond and then, RESPONDING to the light as it shines into our lives. All three illustrations I shared earlier involve a response to the light; as it exposes negative and rough stuff, as it illuminates the part of our lives that have been a firm support, and as it exposes the sin inside ourselves.

The Bible scholar goes on to say: “[Shining the light] can have such far reaching consequences for blessing or for judgment that we must always be careful not to consider it casually or respond to it only superficially. Shining God’s light demands a radical openness on our part, our most serious and thoughtful consideration, and our most trusting response.”

The Divine Light exposes the condition of our hearts as an act of love. We learn we depend on the transforming inner light of Immanuel, God-with-us to live in unity with God and the beloved community. We learn there is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to our condition.

“Showing it like it is” can and should inspire or motivate us to respond in ways that bring the hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent into our lives and the lives of those with whom we connect. It is THEN when Christ comes to redeem and claim and release that inside each of us which brings forth God’s reign into our reality and experience.

Consider these queries as we wait together:

Where is the Light shining in your life?

Where is it shining in the life of this faith community?

Where do you see it shining in our world?

Do you welcome the Light of Christ to reveal and speak to your condition now and into the new year?

Finding the Light, message for 12-07-14–scripture: Luke 12:1-3

I want to begin my comments today by repeating and emphasizing our Advent theme this year. Last week I was more interesting in keeping everyone engaged in intergenerational worship then spending much time on background explanations. We are taking the verse about Jesus as the Light from the gospel of John—as you can see on the bulletin insert describing the candle-lighting process. The complete first paragraph of John, which includes this verse says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This important passage continues on down through verse 14 of John 1. This is the Christmas story according to John. If you were going to make a word picture out what of this passage is saying, I think it would look something like:

God=Word=Light=Christ–>All things.

As we explored in the Quaker series this fall, the Light is an important focus for Friends. When we Quakers say Light we mean Divine presence. We also, as Quakers, believe that there is Light in every person. This Light reveals, teaches, empowers, comforts; most anything that supports and informs our relationship with God—because the Light IS God. And so, at Christmas, according to John we celebrate the arrival of the Light in human form; Emanuel-which means God with us; incarnate—or as the personification of God.

Our focus this year is to describe our Advent season in terms of that Light. Thus a process for making that Light a part of us and our life is defined by the weekly focal points listed; on our need of the light, finding the light, shining the light, embracing the light, and Living the light. In the interest of helping everyone understand what needing the light is all about last week, we talked about preparing (our places, ourselves) and noticing what was missing in the story of Babushka.

Also, last Sunday I introduced the idea of the “advent actions” those activities that will be listed and can be undertaken in order to experience each Advent idea or focus.

I will be sharing my own discoveries when I try to “do” whatever is suggested.

So last week the recommendation was to look at the newspaper and find stories of places that NEED the light of Christ. This was fairly easy to accomplish. I noticed that there were a series of stories throughout the week on how countries need to enact environmental standards to reduce or eliminate climate change. This will take light to reveal and inform the decisions of international leaders. And of course, all the stories about racial injustice around our country speak to the NEED of Christ’s light in those situations. Did anyone else try this? What did you notice?

On this second week of Advent, our focus is FINDING the light. Initially, it seems to me that finding light shouldn’t be too difficult, especially if we recognize it as a part of each and every person, and shining on in all places or situations. The reality as I experience it, is that light –or that divine presence or power or baby Jesus—is often overlooked, hidden or neglected. A special effort to locate light MUST be a part of our holiday preparations and celebrations as individuals and as a faith community. As I wonder what this might entail, I remember my experience after my cataract surgeries. Both times, when I had the eye patch removed the morning after surgery, I was overwhelmed by the results. My vision was renewed with vibrant colors, amazing perspectives on things that I have always known were well within my sight. And so one of my first questions is to ask what covers, or blurs or hides the evidence of light in my life?

During the holidays, so much effort is expended in creating bright and shiny and dazzling experiences. I work hard to make sure all the decorations are just right, that the gifts I give are just what the recipient wants or needs, that my celebrations are full of enriching musical sounds, and delicious food. What I know as truth is that while all these details are ways that joy and happiness are shared, that the SOURCE of joy and happiness–the light– can be obscured by these elements.

A common condition for me is that on Christmas Eve I often feel empty or tired or depressed. All the external conditions required by the holiday have been met or dealt with; all I have to do is wait until morning with its culmination of opened presents that are supposed to bring happiness and contentment…I can either go to bed and sleep through the emptiness, or invite folks in to occupy the time and space. Or; I can look deeper and search more intentionally to find that which is the legitimate source that illuminates all in life that I truly value. I can increase my awareness, open my heart, and truly FIND the Light that illuminates the real gifts and occasions of joy. I do this through prayer, worship, and by just asking God to help me find the Light.

In the scripture for today, we hear the words of Jesus as he begins to describe the hard times believers will suffer as the reign of God appears. He encourages his followers to not get caught up in what the Pharisees say and do. His word for what the Pharisees spread as proper belief and action is hypocrisy. This word in its Greek origin means to wear a mask or play a role—to be an actor. Here, the author uses it to describe the Pharisees’ understandings as being misdirected and incapable of discerning the authentic meaning of the reign of God according to Jesus’ example and witness. The Pharisees are playing at piety without really seeing the light. The piety our culture espouses at the holidays involves ornate decorations, getting what we want, spending the most money, and partying the hardest. This IS NOT the way of the LIGHT, which is Jesus, which is Christ, which is God. Finding the Light is finding that which brings truth, grace, peace, and love into our lives. The LIGHT is found–is present and available– where caring and compassion is shared among our family, friends, faith community; places where needs can be met for those in poverty, where justice is brought forth to those who are oppressed; and where violence is answered with mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.

The following is a devotional that I read this week, which describes well the process of FINDING THE LIGHT.

“I’ll never forget walking with my old golden retriever deep in November on the Appalachian Trail. It was that time of year when the sun surprises you by going down early. The trail blazes on the Appalachian Trail are mercifully white. I got off the trail on our way home. I knew I was lost because I didn’t see the white blazes. Wandering, getting colder as the world got darker, I found my [way back] in the nose of my dog. He nudged me back on the trail. He knew where it was. I didn’t. We made our way home.  [Finding the Light] is like a golden retriever’s nose, nudging you back on the trail, lest it get dark and you get cold.

What surprises me most about getting lost is how easy it is to become found. Just a few inches, a slight change of direction, a look the other way, or a look where we haven’t looked before: these are the nudges of Advent…In this season while we look for the [LIGHT or Jesus or Christ or God], it is important to listen to the nudges, even if they are as doggy as a wet nose nudging the back of our jeans…” [i]

As we sit together this morning, I ask us to consider:

What distracts us from the path to the Light at Christmas.

What do we ignore or overlook that can bring the Light?

How can we uncover the light in the midst of our own traditions and celebrations?

Where are we being nudged to go to find the Light this Christmas season?

[i] Based on a devotion written for the UCC by Donna Schaper “Advent is a Nudge”

“The Work of Transformation” message on 11-13-14

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. “                                  Romans 12:1-2, The Message

My journey to New York Yearly Meeting’s Fall Sessions last weekend began with a drive to Powell House on Friday afternoon before the rush hour traffic began. The next leg, beginning at 4:00 a.m., was driving in the dark down the Taconic Highway, accompanied by Ann Davidson and a cup of good strong coffee, to the train station in Poughkeepsie. Our ride on the Metro North train into Grand Central was a slow; deliberate, and beautiful 2 hours along the Hudson River valley, which was showing off the last of its remaining fall colors. After a final stop at Harlem, we arrived in the busy and bustling Grand Central terminal. Orienting to the quick rush of passers by and locating the appropriate street on which to exit always takes me a few minutes to tell my mind that this isn’t Glens Falls anymore. Due to the fact that both of us were recovering from knee injuries, a taxi seemed the most user-friendly of ways to get downtown. We were able to easily locate a taxi and enter the hectic traffic stream of honking vehicles on Lexington Avenue. “15th Street; between 2nd and 3rd Avenues” I told the driver on the advice of one of my NYC resident friends. As we made our way through the Manhattan streets my senses were inundated with smells, sounds, and the colorful sights of this incredible town. In about 15 minutes, we were paying up and disembarking on the corner of Rutherford Place and 15th Street. Stuyvesant park which is on the corner of 3rd and 15th, was filled with kids and dogs enjoying the moderate weather of the 9:00 hour on Saturday morning. Facing us was the red brick buildings that comprise the location of 15th street monthly meeting, Friends Seminary—a private Quaker run school for 1st through12 grade, Manhattan Monthly Meeting—the small programmed meeting that lives in the city, and the offices of New York Yearly Meeting. We; along with about 200 other Friends were here to do the work of transformation.

In the video, which I hope you will take time to watch again if it’s possible for you, Noah Merrill defines the transforming work of Quakers to be the way of living where we recognize that in every second of our days there is the possibility of the in-breaking of something beyond us that opens up God’s perspective which brings love, justice and redemption into what already exists. This prophetic view expresses the hope and the truth that we can bring forth “what could be” from “what is”, and invites other to join us in that effort.

Many of the conversations and discussions that I have been a part of among Friends at the local, regional, or wider level, that broach the topic of the role of Quakers in the world, usually turn to what changes must be made in the future in order that the ORGANIZATION will survive. We often end up dealing with issues around resolving the differences among different groups of Friends, or how we might attract new people into our faith communities, or what we might try in order to keep the younger folks engaged. Denominational polity and organizational structure is NOT the work of transformation.

Early Friends understood themselves to be a part of a MOVEMENT; NOT a denomination or a sect. Their convictions led them to view their beliefs as that which might just offer a universal Truth that could be shared by EVERYONE, regardless of the existing churches or denominational structures. One of the most useful statements that I discovered this week came from a public talk given by Quaker Lloyd Lee Wilson who commented that “The challenge facing us is not to modernize our faith tradition to meet a changing society, but to embody our faith traditions more fully so that we can be leavening and seasoning in that society.” I believe that Noah Merrill would agree with that statement. I understand that to “embody” our faith is to live daily lives that minute by minute show and share our Quaker values. THIS is transformational work.

In the gospels, Jesus describes coming of the Kingdom or the Reign of God like a woman mixing a bit of yeast into the flour until all of it was leavened. The small bit of yeast must be sifted into the flour to produce the change that makes great bread dough. Living prophetically or doing the work of transformation SEASONS the world –the culture, the planet –to become, little by little, that in which God can and will be present and active. That is how Quakerism can work, with our own activity and commitment to bring forth a better world–the Reign of God.

Back to Fall Sessions! There were two experiences that I had in the meeting room at 15th St. that I believe demonstrates how transformation among Friends is happening…

The first was through the report given by the General Secretary Christopher Sammond.

As he detailed how our Yearly Meeting can implement the priorities that have been created over the past 5 years, he named 3 crucial strands of our Quaker identity for us to emphasize or expand in order to move our group forward in realizing the Kingdom of God; Communion, Community, and Living in Truth. Notice that none of these have much to do with the organizational structure of the yearly meeting.

Communion is that powerful feeling of being gathered in worship, when the power of the Lord is over all. This comes most directly from the core Quaker understanding that humans can connect directly with God without any need of intermediaries; that we can as individuals and groups can realize and understand and act out of the relationship we have with the Divine.

Community is the connection and connectedness we have as a group; living, and working, and worshipping, and playing together. All are equally involved; all affect the whole. It is grounded and given life in the spiritual dimension of Communion.

Living in Truth is the work of witness in which we engage. Naming and having the courage to live in the truth of a world where people are destroying our planet, where violence kills so many, where economic injustice is rampant. Witnessing is also taking actions that work to heal these broken places, and calling others to notice as well as becoming involved in the work of making the world a better place.

All of these strands intertwined together provide unity and purpose when we recognize that ALL THREE are vital to our Quaker message and mission; they equip Friends to live into the work of transformation.

My other personal experience of the work of transformation at Fall Sessions occurred during worship on Sunday morning…For all the external noise of traffic and people surrounding the buildings, the worship space is an oasis of quiet, even as one looks outside the windows at the world moving by. As we sat together, I began to recognize the sound of the water moving through the radiators in the room. It sounds to me like rain falling or a distant waterfall. As I worshipped, I began to understand that background sound as that Divine Presence which surrounds each one of us as well as the whole group together. This was an experience of THAT OF GOD which is in each of us!. It is that which Noah says that we are being invited into beyond the anxiety and fear of this culture. It spoke to me of the unity, and the transformation that is always present and always possible and just outside ourselves. It was as if God’s-self was inviting and exhorting me and the group that surrounded me into that reign of hope and grace and justice that is also always present. I was called to realize and live into the truth that transformation comes bit by bit only as I give myself, and those with whom I live and work, no matter when or where, over to the in-breaking of that which is just beyond the status quo.

Romans 12:2 as it is in the New Revised Standard Version says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

I think Eugene Peterson’s translation speaks better to the effort that leads us into the Kingdom of God. Placing our everyday life before God, embracing God’s already present gifts, and making changes from the inside out. Those are the keys to transformation.

The actions taken by the Yearly Meeting last weekend included allowing for way to open for us to approve the 2015 budget, as well as approval of a minute calling from the release of an sick, incarcerated man who was perhaps wrongly convicted and who doesn’t want to die in prison. The body also directed the clerk to endorse a travel minute for a Friend who wants to travel and do ministry in Kenya. We heard our clerk encourage visitations between meetings and worship groups in order to affirm one another and undergird the Yearly Meeting with these connections. The many committee meetings that took place Saturday also enabled the work of our Yearly Meeting to go forward, allowing for our daily lives and activities to become steeped in God and God’s reign. As we understand our place within this Yearly Meeting, we become part of its efforts to bring about change that brings forth the reign of God among us and our world. This IS OUR WORK of transformation, TOGETHER.

As we discussed the topics in our series here—WDTQS?!–, a number of folks expressed that they couldn’t understand why people aren’t flocking into Quaker meetings when. Our doors need first to be opened by our own efforts; initiating and enabling the hope, love, justice and redemption that show that God is present and active. This will provide the welcome that all who inquire need and want to see…

So Friends, will you join me in the work of transformation for ourselves as individuals, as well as our faith tradition?

The Inner Light (scripture: John 1:1-14)

What Friends call the “inner light” has been an integral part of Quaker Faith and Practice from the very beginning. Here are the words of George Fox from his journal as he describes his opening regarding it:

“Now the Lord opened to me by his invisible power “that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ”, and I saw it shine through all. And that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the light of life, and became the children of it. But they that hated it and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ.”

The “Light of Christ Within” is that central, divine principal which has been referred to by Quakers in a variety of terms: The Light Within, Christ Within, Inward Light, Inner Light, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Seed, Measure, and—also by George Fox himself –“That of God in Everyone.”

As we heard in our scripture this morning, the Light is a biblical term for the divine presence. It is found in John chapter 1 and in John 8:12 (Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.); and besides in John, we find it in 1 Thess. 5:5 (for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.) and Eph 5:8 (For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—.)

It is clear that Fox and other early Quakers understood the Light to be referring to Jesus Christ. Also crucial, is that for Fox, the Light was that which shows us evil and that which brings us into unity with God. Wilmer Cooper explains these two ideas well when he says “The first is an ethical emphasis on turning from evil to the good, whereas the second has to do with salvation, which is reconciliation with God and with one another in the community of faith.”

Howard Brinton, a modern day Quaker scholar defines the Light with these words: “the Light is the source of Truth, the source of Power to act on the knowledge of that truth, and the source of unity wherein as we are obedient to the Light we are brought into unity with God and one another. This is the redemptive process by which we are reconciled with God and all creation.”

To more clearly define the meaning of the light within, Cooper offers several distinguishing characteristics that I feel are important to name as we attempt to acquire a complete understanding about it.

First, the Light is experienced as the direct and immediate presence of God. It is God’s grace that allows us to receive this and enable a divine-human encounter. We Humans cannot work to acquire it on our own.

The Light is divine in origin and it stands apart from our finite existence. It is not just a part of human nature. “That of God” is OF GOD.

The Light is understood to be universal. This means that everyone has this ingredient within their being. Believers AND NON BELIEVERS. The Quaker founders held that it was possible to be “saved” by Christ whether or not one had heard of the historical Jesus through the work of the Light.

As inward teacher, the Light has the capacity to instruct and direct and should be obeyed. The personal connection between oneself and God that enables hearing, learning, and responding is the work of the inner Light.

“The Light Within is not to be identified with or confused with conscience and reason, but both can and need to be illuminated by the Light of Christ.” Robert Barclay used to explain this distinction by comparing conscience to a lantern and the Light to a candle that burns within the lantern.

Finally, response to the Light is to be discerned in the community of faith. Christ is not only the Inward Teacher for the individual, but also the one who can instruct and guide the group of believers.

There are problems and challenges that have resulted from the idea of Inner Light. One is how to relate the Light of Christ to the Jesus of History. According to Friends, these two separate realities are united. The leadings of the inward Christ are in agreement with Jesus’ teaching and character. Howard Brinton has maintained that although Jesus was completely human, he was also divine in that he possessed the Light without measure.

Additionally, Friends themselves throughout history have differed and divided on the role and authority of the inner Light. More evangelical Friends understand scripture to be the primary means of revelation of God’s will. More liberal Friends understand the inward Christ as being the focus of guidance that will enable living a good and faithful life. More evangelical Friends believe that humanity is so evil that the death of Christ is the only atonement that can save us; those on the liberal end of the spectrum emphasize the redemption of humankind that Jesus brings through his life and teachings. They argue that Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate act of love, a way of showing how God suffers for the evil humans do. Many evangelical Quakers understand the Holy Spirit as the divine presence that is active among believers today. The inward light Quakers—most generally are liberal Friends and are those who emphasize the Light motif.

While Friends have never been very precise about theological language or very orthodox in their view of the Trinity, all this juggling of terms and understandings can create confusion and obviously has led to conflict. The ideas about inner Light almost seem to me to add another dimension to what Christianity has long defined as the Trinity—God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My practice is to try not to become preoccupied or overwhelmed with terminology; and as much as I would love to have an orderly, well-defined Divine presence—one that I can get a handle on, I seek to understand that there are many aspects of God beyond my knowing. I delight in using many of the terms: Light, Spirit, Christ, Jesus, God, and so on. I have experienced first hand the illumination, warmth, energy, and revealing nature of the Light. I have also delighted in the Holy Spirit’s instruction, comfort and enabling power. Does the Light convey power? Does the Holy Spirit teach? Yes, just as the Light can comfort and the presence of Christ can bring knowledge. The one thing I know for certain is that my encounters lead me to be in relationship with a Divine Presence that can and will do many things in order to reveal itself and become partners with humanity. Quakerism is a faith that allows for all sorts of experiences beyond doctrine and theology. The inner light is a distinctly Quaker term and understanding that can open the door to faith, and has become the way for many folks to experience God.

I want to close with the New York Yearly Meeting’s statement about the inner light. It is found in the section called seeking the spirit…notice as you listen to this reading the interplay of the terms we have utilized and begun to explore this morning.

This section begins with a quote from Early Quaker Lucretia Mott:

‘My faith is firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrine preached by Jesus and by every child of God since the creation of the world, especially the great truth that God is the teacher of his people himself; the doctrine that Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom is with man, that there is his sacred and divine temple.’

Faith and Practice goes on to say: There is that of God in everyone. This principle of the Inward Light, the Christ Within, illumines for us every corner of religion, philosophy, ethics, morals, daily living, social relationships, and international relations. Before we can express this faith to others, whether in words or in deeds, we must first experience the reality of the Inward Light in our own souls. Then we are released to be faithful to this Spirit. The corporate and personal disciplines Friends have used are the means by which we have found and experienced the presence of God. Through these disciplines we have been able to remain faithful in our witness to the world. “Seek, and ye shall find,” said Jesus. From the beginning Friends have emphasized the search. We do not have the whole truth. But we can search diligently for understanding and use some of the guides that help us grow toward the Light.

And so, we go back once again to what Caroline Fox asks:

What canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?

May we all be blessed and taught and accompanied and empowered and supported as we seek our way in the Light and Love of God.

Quakers and the Bible scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Let’s start by looking again at the passage from Second Timothy we read earlier. You can find it on the insert in your bulletin. First, notice the phrase that is in bold. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” That’s actually the entire 16th verse of the section from 3:14 through 4:5. This verse is the one that is used often (and loudly in my experience) when some of my more evangelical or fundamental Christian sisters and brothers are trying to prove scriptural inerrancy—or the belief that the Bible is the ultimate written spiritual authority, and is the sole and complete truth for any issues of faith and practice. As one local congregation says in their articles of faith, “The Bible is the written will of God”; totally and completely. It was interesting to me to discover that this verse as it relates to the passage that contains it, reveals a different lesson about the role of Scripture.

2 Timothy is written as the apostle Paul’s farewell address to his most devoted assistant Timothy. It contains the wisdom and special insight Paul has that he thinks will equip Timothy to face the hardships and opponents of the Way—the movement that has formed after the death and resurrection of Christ – in the days ahead after Paul is gone. These are the core beliefs and practices of the new faith that must be promoted and shared in order to prosper and grow it. If you read carefully the passage from this morning, it is clear that scripture—according to Paul –IS NOT the ultimate source of divine presence and power. The goal of Timothy and all believers should be to utilize the scripture as INSTRUCTION in the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, which should be the goal of all believers. According to bible scholar Dirk Lange, “the descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The scripture invites us into a pattern on gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma…The goal of scripture is not to elicit correct answers from us…The passage in this Sunday’s epistle points us elsewhere. The teaching, admonition, and training lead us somewhere beyond the use of scripture or tradition as merely identity markers, boundary keepers, and ultimately means for self justification. The proper use of scripture and tradition leads us to ‘every good work’.

It leads us to a life that is lived in remembrance of Jesus Christ, a life that embodies this remembrance.”

It has also always been of interest to me that when I hear verse 16 used as a proof that all scripture is inerrant, most folks are of course thinking of the new testament—specifically the gospels. Of course, when this is written, there is no “new testament”. Scripture refers here to the Hebrew bible. Thus, then, in the video, when Paul Buckley talks about the way Quakers read the Bible; under the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit, I believe he is talking about a perspective that is more clearly called for within the Bible itself.

Additionally, Paul speaks about the situation he’s encountered where a lot of Quakers DON’T read the Bible. I think he’s speaking about the reality that exists for many Christians. It is important to realize that In earlier times—say the 1650’s when the culture gave rise to so many movements that were unhappy with the established church tradition—including Quakers—that the Bible was the most pre-eminent book in the English-speaking world. For many people, it was the only readily accessible book and it profoundly influenced views of life, society, history, politics, and the world. Fast forward 350 years into a reality where we are inundated with all sorts of written communications; newspapers, email, texting, eBooks, as well as the tons of conventional books published each year, and we can see why the bible occupies a diminished role. As Friends, whose faith and practice does not proclaim the bible as the inerrant word of God, there is more likelihood that the Bible is NOT a major focus of a Quaker’s faith life. I would agree with Paul that the Bible is often a lost resource for Friends.

However, if we jump back in time again to the day of George Fox and early Quakers, we would encounter a group—a movement who knew and used the Bible as a key element in their understanding of God, and in their expressions of faith. According to Wilmer Cooper in his book on Quaker faith and practice, “Early Friends immersed themselves in the Bible, which was so much a part of their religious culture that its authority was taken for granted. It was said of George Fox that were the Scriptures lost he could reconstruct them from memory. Whether or not this was true, it is clear that he and other Friends were not only familiar with the Bible, but took it seriously as a religious guide for their lives.” A look at Michael Birkel’s book “Engaging Scripture; reading the Bible with early Friends” discloses that Friends used the scriptural texts to symbolize and describe the circumstances that they themselves were encountering as they sought to share and spread their form of “primitive Christianity revived”. Their writings and letters are rife with biblical phrases, and references to biblical themes and experiences. For example hear the opening lines of George Fox’s epistle 227: “Sing and rejoice you children of the Day and of the Light. For the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. Truth does flourish as the rose, the lilies do grow among the thorns, the plants a-top the hills, and upon them the lambs do skip and play.” Besides sounding biblical, EVERY WORD of that quote refers or suggests a key concept or quote from the Bible.

YES; the Bible was important to friends and continues to have the potential to affect our faith and practice in these days.

But, for Friends, it has ALWAYS been about where the scriptures LEAD; under the direct and inward influence of the Holy Spirit—from the very first generation of Quakers. In a section of his journal George Fox wrote:

“I was to direct people to the Spirit, that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and so up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth. . . . These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter; but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the holy scriptures were written. Yet I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, they were very precious to me; for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth; and what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to them.”

As Quaker scholar Stephen Angel says, “According to Fox’s mystical understanding, the openings from the Spirit came first, and the consultation of the book later.” This is the foundation of the Friends core belief in immediate and direct revelation by the Holy Spirit, THROUGH the scriptures. Our own New York Yearly Meeting’s faith and practice describes this reality very well.

“Because the Bible expresses the work of the Spirit, its authority is dependent on the Spirit itself. The same Light that inspired the prophets and apostles can illumine anyone who seeks to understand the truth. Such illumination is itself the highest authority. It unites us in the gospel of forgiveness, love, and community taught and lived by Jesus, and draws us into his struggle to realize the Kingdom of God, a world brought into unity with God’s will.”

There are differences across the spectrum of Friends belief today that reflect the path Quakers have taken through history; as they were affected by the religious world around them, and the specific leadings that folks have understood to be divine insight regarding how the bible is treated. There are even Friends who would agree with the statement that I read from a local congregation concern the role of scripture in faith. The differences can divide and have separated us in the past, but I choose to utilize them to engage in scripture personally in ways that allow me to experience the direct presence of God.

How exciting it can be to open oneself to the reality and power of the divine through the Holy Spirit illuminating the words of the Bible. My best hope is that we all start or continue to explore the scriptures for ourselves as individuals and as a faith community. As you might imagine, there are several practices developed and utilized by Friends that encourage the Bible to come alive in our faith journeys. I look forward to sharing those with you during our discussion time and continuing this conversation with you about scripture and it’s role in our lives as Quakers.

Let us take some time now to listen for God’s word to us about the Bible and our lives in our waiting worship.

Why God Cares About the Carpet Color message from 10-05-14, scripture Numbers 27:1-11

Quaker meeting. for worship. for business. The full name says it all…meeting for worship. For business. And, as Eden Grace so articulately reminds us in the video, we are in fact discerning and then working to be obedient to the will of God in ALL those things that affect our faith community; SPIRITUAL AND SECULAR; monumental and mundane, through the deliberate acts of corporate devotion and waiting and prayer together.

I have found that once a person realizes the power and legitimacy in this way of conducting the affairs of an organization, all other methods pale in comparison. Recently, in other meetings of community organizations I have longed for the periods of quiet, for the orderly conversation, for others who recognize God’s presence, like I find in Quaker business meetings.

The primary distinctive of a Quaker business meeting resides in what the goal is for our business gathering. We are not seeking to only make decisions based on the support of a particular action by the greatest number of attenders at the meeting. We are working to determine what God wants rather than collecting majority opinion… Many Quakers or Friends acknowledge this distinction by alluding to the fact that through a meeting for business, UNITY is achieved about any given issue or action. Unity is that condition in which all voices are joined harmoniously into one whole. All perspectives have been considered and a response has been melded together that reflects the input of every voice. This is NOT unanimity, where all the individual responses have been the same or made to become the same, thus resulting in a consensus decision. An example of unity could be found in the formation of a musical chord, which is the joining together of three or more distinct individual notes producing a whole new unique sound. This work takes effort, and the understanding that ultimately everyone is seeking to be aligned around what God’s perspective is on the topic or issue. Quaker Patricia Loring says that those who seek in this way find a “deep, interior unity which is a sign the members are consciously gathered in God and may therefore trust their corporate guidance.”

Integral to the good functioning of a business meeting is the ability of the clerk to competently fulfill their role. Although this position is roughly parallel to a chairperson or president, it does include a different focus. While a president or chairperson has hierarchical authority that allows that person to determine the agenda of the gathering, as well as control the flow and focus of business as the meeting unfolds, a clerk is primarily concerned with operating at two levels simultaneously, while maintaining group order in the proceedings. On one level, a clerk must be sensitive to the group—ensuring that all get opportunity to express their views, working to clarify and guide the discussion. Another level involves the ability to seek divine guidance regarding the business at hand. “Clerking requires considerable self-restraint; the clerk is to be obedient to the considered will of the meeting even when his or her personal judgment may be different. When the clerk senses unity is near, a minute may be proposed that embraces the sense of the meeting…and sometimes a clerk will frame a minute that is somewhat different from any view that has been expressed but incorporates all of them so well that all present unite with it.

Not all responsibility for productive business meetings lies on the clerk. EACH INDVIDUAL participant should work to contribute to a successful, productive gathering. Careful listening, respect and trust for one another are crucial. Decision-making can be time consuming, requiring those present to wait in silence occasionally, until a new direction emerges. Each individual speaking only once to each issue or topic is also a good discipline to follow. It is important for any and all meeting attenders to understand that every person has information, insight, and energy that is vital to the business process.

There are also a couple of other types of gatherings among friends that impact or contribute to decision making. These too are meetings for WORSHIP for whatever the issue at hand entails.

When a meeting encounters a decision that is complex or where they are likely to reveal major differences of feeling or understanding, preliminary meetings to air these differences and to hear from one another may be desirable and help the process of mutual understanding. Quakers designate such meetings as “threshing meetings or sessions”. The name is derived from the assumption that through them the chaff might be separated from the grain of truth, clearing the way for later action on the issue. However no corporate decisions are made at such meetings. My personal experience with threshing sessions includes a meeting at Wilmington Friends in Ohio, as the faith community struggled with the issue of having an American flag on the platform in the worship room. We sat together for between 2 and 3 hours one Sunday after our worship service in order to hear one another’s views and discern together in silence. This gathering did help the monthly meeting move through some emotional and hard places, creating the environment from which a proposal was created that was approved at a later meeting for business.

Meetings for clearness take place to help an individual member or attender of the meeting find clarity around a leading or concern in their life. Usually a clearness committee is formed from the monthly meeting to meet with the person desires guidance. These may be requested when an individual is considering a major life decision and would benefit from sitting in worship and answering discerning questions. This could include but would not be limited to when they are feeling called to some sort of ministry, or considering a job change, a move in location, or any significant transition or issue. Clearness committees are also part of the Quaker marriage process. I have asked for clearness committees in order to define what and where I might pursue a pastoral ministry position at a couple different times in my career. I have also been on clearness committees considering a person’s educational opportunities and options, as well as one that focused on how to arrange childcare and work so that all members of a family had their desires and needs taken care of.

At the core of each one of these decision-making processes among Quakers- meeting for worship for business, threshing sessions, and clearness commitees– is the truth and reality that we encountered in our scripture about the daughters of Zelophahad. Those 5 women challenged the assumptions of their culture that said that the Law was the ultimate answer for any of life’s issues. Their leader Moses, who had a relationship with the divine that included the ability to ask questions and seek responses, went to talk to God about this circumstance that would have led to the daughters losing their family’s land. When God responds to this inquiry, we can discern and understand that God desires this kind of connection with ALL humans. As Eden noted, God CARES: about anything and everything, and wants to communicate with us. While the issue at hand deeply concerns the daughters, their land is their life—in the same way that our concerns about carpet, and sound systems and the budget occupy and affect us and our faith communities—the bottom line is that God responds because ULTIMATELY, the transformation of the world is affected. Our actions, based on the response of a loving and gracious God promotes the spread of the reign of God, and shares the Good news in the places and people of our community and beyond. That is why God cares about the color of carpet in the meetinghouse.Our God is a God who desires and values relationship with humans that supports and nurtures and enables all facets of our lives, as well as the empowerment of the promotion and growth of the Kingdom of God. Our decision-making practices encourages and allows our relationship with God to prosper the whole world.

Come to business meeting and partner with God in creating a world based on love, peace, justice, equality. It really does start right here!

The Sound of Silence scripture: I Kings 19: 9b-13

To say that the prophet Elijah was having a rough time is an understatement. This flamboyant and strong person, who is unconditionally loyal to God no matter what or where, has had quite a run of events and activities that have exhibited the devotion to Yahweh that ALL Israelites SHOULD have. He has predicted a drought, brought an young man back to life, stood up to King Ahab, and overcome 450 priest of Baal. If you’re more interested in the details, see I Kings 17-20. But here in chapter 19, Elijah has reached the end of his rope, in spite of all his successes. He is physically tired, frightened, anxious, depressed, fleeing for his life and contemplating suicide. He DESPERATELY needs a word from God. He is told to go to the mountain and wait. Elijah shelters in a cave on that mountain, and there witnesses a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. None of these bring what Elijah needs or longs for. Finally, a silence envelops that place, and Elijah goes out in it to encounter God.

Now, I am not particularly prophetic and my life doesn’t seem to be as eventful as Elijah’s. I have, however, been exhausted mentally, physically and spiritually. I have LONGED to have some indication from God that communicates the certainty of and the presence of the Divine. I would anticipate that all of us here have found ourselves in similar circumstances. The Religious Society of Friends or Quakers offer to us humans a faith that is built on the reality that Elijah discovered; that God can be found in and communicated with through silence. Friends would be the first to tell one that a crisis is not needed to insure an encounter with God in silence; Quakers understand that that experience can happen in any time or place where someone might seek to embrace or connect with God. Quakers do though understand silence to be particularly meaningful and rich as they seek it together. This contemplative style of worship can answer any or all who want to work corporately to enable it to happen.

I offered the following quote last week to begin to name the value in this quite radical form of worship, and I think it is worthwhile to repeat it at the beginning of our exploration of silent worship this morning to describe both the individual’s and the gathered group’s role in enabling it to happen. Unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship is “the only radical alternative form of Christian worship where each is personally responsible for one’s own spiritual journey and which can only be grown and nourished in corporate gathering.”

What do Friends think or hope, will happen in this type of gathering? One Friend stated simply that “Meeting for worship is a time I choose to spend in the presence of God. Silent worship is about becoming friends with God.” I think it is vital to remind us again that what we are after is NOT simply silence for silence’s sake, but rather like Elijah, we seek to encounter GOD in the stillness. This kind of worship doesn’t happen without effort; we should also come ready to be participants; mere physical attendance is not enough. And, there are ways in which we can prepare before the actual worship time begins. Expectancy, and attitudes of waiting and listening are vital attributes to carry into our worship. We will be exploring some practices that an individual might utilize to nurture the weekly meeting for worship and their own spiritual life throughout the week during the discussion time after worship.

Most folks understand that a state of deep worshipful silence is not instantly attainable as the meeting begins. There is an initial time of centering, when folks work to lay aside those things that connect them to the external world and preoccupy their efforts at communication and communion with God. The goal is to be as present and open as possible to what will come as we go deeper. There are ways to attend to the inner realities that bubble up inside; some folks will read scripture or other spiritual writings as they begin, others might note the issues and concerns that occupy their thoughts and deliberately lay each one aside to clear the space, some will give thanks for specific items, people or circumstances in their lives—using that to lead them into stillness. Closing one’s eyes seems to help many folks; opening your eyes may work as well. Even Elijah needed a process that enabled him to realize he was in the presence of the holy—he journeyed through the wind, earthquake and fire before he was ready for the silence.

Another detail in the Elijah scripture and the video that informs or reminds us about our attempts at silent worship, is to understand and rely on that the silence itself is NOT empty. It isn’t a void space to be filled. Other translations of verse 12 in our reading convey that the stillness is alive with Divine Presence…Where the translation we heard reads “sheer silence”, other versions use “gentle whisper”, “low murmuring sound”. The Common English Bible is my favorite; the 12th verse reads “After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.” Brent Bill in his book, Holy Silence, says “The only thing I can compare (silent worship) to is the Catholic belief that in the ‘celebration of mass…Christ is really present through Holy Communion to the assembly gathered in his name.’ It is the same way with silence for Quakers. Friends believe that Christ is actually present…we believe that when our hearts, minds, and souls are still and we wait expectantly in holy silence, that the presence of Christ comes among us.”

Sometimes, there are verbal messages that one or several of those gathered may feel moved to offer as a response to the experience of being in communication and communion with God in the Silence; this is called giving vocal ministry. This sort of ministry can be seen as humans becoming instruments of the divine, where “one has the sense that the speaker has been spoken through or played through, rather than having spoken herself.” Another Friend states that “a spoken message in a Quaker meeting is clearly not a sermon or homily but something more modest and yet more wonderful. It consists of opening one’s soul to fellow worshipers and either humbly offering some insight that one finds helpful and hopes they also may value; or offering one’s spiritual need in the hope that others may be led, by dwelling on their own inner light to illumine some aspect of the matter.”

While this all may sound trepidating or difficult or worse, it is the experience of generations of Quakers that this type of worship is what gives vitality and energy and inspiration to their personal faith and their faith communities. It does take practice and persistence to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that silence provides.

We here at Adirondack Meeting, while being a programmed meeting, do attempt to utilize silence in meaningful ways. Our gathering silence is a time for centering at the beginning of our worship, where we can work to focus on the time and space that are present. The silent meditation happens at a time just after the joys and concerns of our faith community have been offered…encouraging us to take these into our time with God and allowing them to be bathed in the light of our corporate concern. The silences out of which the pastoral message is given and then into which we return, is when worshippers might go more deeply into silence and encounter the divine presence—with or without the illumination of some piece of the message. This time perhaps occasionally gives rise to some vocal ministry among us. The other elements of worship—music, scripture, vocal prayer are also designed to enhance the experience of communion present in the silences. Additionally, there is opportunity on Wednesday evenings to gather in an unprogrammed worship where there are no spoken prompts—there is only quiet space.

Please hear me when I say that I offer these thoughts not as prescriptions for how things SHOULD happen, but rather as possibilities that may assist us most importantly in connecting with the Source of our faith and life. There are MANY varieties of experiences with silence. I think Friends should gather regularly to discuss and share and ask questions that help us all as we grow and develop and journey, offering to anyone who joins us a place where God might be known and heard as we worship.

As Brent Bill says “Quaker silence encourages us to relax into the love of God until we hear the Spirit’s voice whispering softly into our soul’s ear.”

It is my hope and prayer that we can continue to do this here, as we sit quietly together.

Message for 09-21-14: “Meeting for Worship” scripture–Matthew 18: 18-20

Let’s start this morning by giving some definitions for words we use regularly, often without thinking about their meaning…What about “worship”?

“Worship” means the giving of reverence and honor to the divine; it’s an act of devotion. The word has its origins in being used to express the idea of “worthship”; or to give, at its simplest, worth to something. Worship for Quakers happens as our scripture from Matthew describes whenever 2 or more are gathered who have an awareness of and desire for God, and God’s presence and impact and WORTH in their lives. It does not require anything but that awareness and desire to make it happen; not a specific building, or certain tools, or special people. As we can begin to comprehend, Quaker worship can happen anywhere under any number of circumstances: while we’re eating, working, playing, resting. Key here is that Friends understand that worship is an integral piece of a life of faith, and should happen often. That said; we can also state that Quakers obviously do focus specific times and places for corporate worship.

Let’s define what we mean when we say “meeting” or meeting for worship” or “meetinghouse”… Early Quakers viewed “the church” as the universal body of believers—the whole of all those who claim faith in the divine everywhere. This is, of course, different from the common usage where church primarily defines the building used by a faith community, or the worship that happens within a building ie. “I go to church every Sunday”. For Quakers, or Friends, “Meeting” signifies the gathering of a body of believers for worship together. We here together in this room are a “meeting”. The term meeting is used because of the expected participation of all; meeting or encountering God together. “Meeting for Worship” specifically alludes to a gathering that is under the leadership of the Spirit. Quakers most definitely place great emphasis on the understanding that our worship is guided and directed by Spirit, rather than human leadership.

The building we use then becomes the “meetinghouse”. Our founder George Fox was known for derogatorily referring to conventional church buildings as “Steeple houses”, in condemnation for what he viewed as an ostentatious display of wealth or power.

So here we are: Adirondack Friends Meeting, in the meetinghouse, for meeting for worship!

The WAY Friends worship, as defined by Wilmer Cooper, should be composed of four common elements: silence, communion, ministry, and fellowship. There are differences among the varieties of Quakers regarding the emphasis each one gives to these four. Of course, Unprogrammed Quakers or Friends are those who meet for worship with no previously arranged order, out of which any person may give ministry if led by the Lord. We will be focusing on silence more specifically next week. But since this is probably THE most noticeable distinction of Quakers, let me offer this quote by a New England Friend who says that unprogrammed meeting for worship is “the only radical alternative form of Christian worship where each is personally responsible for one’s own spiritual journey and which can only be grown and nourished in corporate gathering.” I think this highlights the importance of BOTH individual and group silence among Friends. Let me also say that this component—SILENCE– is also a vital, albeit smaller portion of programmed worship—which DOES follow an order of worship. More next week!

Communion is comprehended by Quakers in a way that separates us from virtually all other Christians. Friends do not observe communion through physical elements of bread and wine. Instead, we believe that the true communion that Christ enjoined to His followers is spiritual; it is when they gather and share and worship in harmony and love. While we also understand that this can happen anywhere folks gather corporately; for example, during any meal, it specifically is understood as being enacted as we gather in worship.

Ministry is the response of a participant in worship to the leading of the Divine. ALL Friends are called on to be ministers. Ministry at it’s most foundational, is the response or witness by a person to the action of God in the world. Early Quaker Robert Barclay understood ministry as the work of “exhorting, instructing, admonishing, overseeing, and watching over one another.” As programmed meetings grew out of the revival movement of the late 19th century, they emphasized the need to have someone designated to preach regularly and give care to converts. Today, pastoral ministers, who are often credentialed and named, continue to be one of a number of ministers in any given congregation. The calling of a minister by any meeting entails the designation of one who is released for study, outreach, visitation, preaching and leadership. Among Friends, there are NO acts or roles that only a pastor can do or fulfill. All members of a meeting can be seen to have unique and individual gifts in ministry that support the entire meeting.

Finally, fellowship in meetings is an integral facet of our life together. Care and support of individuals and families from the initial welcome they receive the first time they attend, through the all the joys and concerns of human life, are offered and received in a variety of ways, by all people in the meeting. The meeting understands one of its duties as being the respect for and nurturing of all individuals who participate in the life of the faith community. Quakers understand that a life of faith is one that extends to all parts and aspects of daily life, no matter how young or old a person is; the fellowship found among folks who are connected in spiritual ways accompanies and strengthens each individual’s faithful and faith-filled lives. Our fellowship is also guided and directed by the testimonies, which speak to ways we have found to live and act based on our beliefs. A meeting should be a focal point for where folks can live into simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality corporately.

Thus, as a distinct Quaker community worshipping through silence, communion, ministry and fellowship, we here at Adirondack Friends Meeting are a programmed meeting that finds great value in our meeting time, which includes crucial times of silence throughout our order of worship. We encourage folks to understand that physical attendance at meeting is not enough; one must arrive prepared to worship to reap the maximum benefits. We also understand that anyone is welcome to participate in worship in ways that are meaningful to them and to the whole meeting. Singing, speaking—either from the silence or by giving the day’s message, sharing a children’s message, or reading scripture can be offered by anyone as we experience communion with the Divine.

Another unique aspect of our worship here that is rooted in our Quaker tradition is the ministry of the facing bench. Under the care of our Ministry and Counsel, this important aspect of our time together gives support to the spiritual depth and quality of the gathered meeting. Specifically, folks who sit on the bench are holding and grounding our worship in the light and love of God, praying for the pastor or whoever is leading worship, and responding to nudges to pray for the faces they see as they look our on those gathered. While mainly Ministry and Counsel members fulfill this role, it is open to anyone who feels led to it and who is willing to be used by God to immerse our meeting time in the Spirit. This is a key way we at Adirondack live into the idea that EVERYONE is a minister, equipped with unique and important gifts to be shared.

Finally, most important to the identity of Quaker meeting is the end result. One has not truly worshipped until there is a distinct response to it. Friends have always understood their faith to be manifested in the actions or understandings or perspectives that are derived from meeting for worship. As William Penn said, “True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.” If one cannot identify a thought or activity or decision that has been the result of worship, I would suggest that the worship has been ineffective and unsatisfactory for both for the individual and the meeting. An important query to consider as one concludes their worship experience might be “have I or we been moved to experience the presence of the divine in a way that impacts or changes our daily life for the better?”

Again Friends, I can end with that question from last week: “what canst THOU say?” –what can YOU say? …About worship here or worship among Friends in General? Are there things that I haven’t mentioned that are important to you? Why does Quaker worship work or not work for you?

As we conclude, I offer this week’s QuakerSpeak video…