Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Back home in Minnesota

It is nice to come home. I'm always relieved to see that the house hasn't burned down. Our (almost) 15 year old neighbor, Viking Girl, took care of everything, and I am grateful. The tomatoes are growing but not yet ripe, but weren't dead. The peas have withered from living green to a paper-like, brittle brown -- exactly like the peas we saw by Quaker House in Seattle. The morning glorys are blooming, as are some unidentified but beautiful blue flowers planted in the "purple cone-flower" section of the garden.

And now, about the Gathering.

To start the story backwards, the only bummer I had was losing my camera on the day we arrived in Tacoma. It disappeared somewhere between the King Street train station in Seattle and PLU. I had big plans for taking photos, especially of Sacred Harp singing, Friends from my home meeting (for the newsletter), and our trip to Lummi Island, and already had a bunch from the train ride west and an extra memory card, but when I unpacked on Friday night, the camera wasn't there.

I immediately made all the necessary calls -- Amtrak stations in Seattle, Portland, and Eugene, the restaurant in Tacoma where we ate on Friday night, and, when they eventually decided to answer the phone, the Tacoma Amtrak station. Nothing. I even called the Tacoma bus company and got a lovely woman who groaned sympathetically with me when she, too, came up emptyhanded and I said "You were my last hope." "Your last hope? I am sooo sorry," she said, and sounded like she meant it.

Then, on the answering machine here at home: "Hi. This is John at the Tacoma Amtrak station. A conductor told us that a party of three or four may have left a camera on the train today [June 30] and I'm wondering if it was you. Please call me to see how we can get it back to you." I immediately called John, and after a few more hours of telephone calls, he just called to say that they'll box it up & train it to the Amtrak station in St. Paul where I can pick it up. Whew. It isn't a terribly expensive camera, but it is a good tool and takes nice pictures and I'd just upgraded a bit to it, and I'll be glad to have it back.

So all's well that ends well.

But, even with the what-an-idiot-I-am cloud hanging over me because of the lost camera, I found the Gathering probably to be the best I've ever attended though it's always dangerous to rank things like that. (It was my eleventh since 1983, so I've obviously missed a lot of good ones). I always enjoy the Gathering, but often I enjoy it the way I would a family reunion orvacation and not especially as as religious event or experience. But this year I felt a lot more happening on the deeper levels.

Convergent Friends interest group.

The most distinct experience came from the amazing interest group meeting on "convergent Friends" already noted by Martin Kelly, Liz Opp and Robin who coordinated the evening. You can read what they did at their blogs.

For me, the session started as an unremarkable event, with introductions and a go-around the room. (I really liked the introduction: name one spiritual practice that you practice regularly.) But after the introductions of attenders and the leaders ended, I felt a real covering of the meeting begin. It started for me with a Friend telling the story of the first Friends meeting in Galilee and how the leader of that meeting loved the twelve dolts who just didn't get it, and stuck with them, even unto his own death. A lesson about belonging to something -- or to someone -- I believe.

Then a woman stood and sang, with great force and power, a spiritual I had never heard before that she had prepared for the workshop on John Woolman. The song consisted of a single sentence sung two or three times each verse. The two verses I remember went like this:
I asked Jesus if it would be all right if he changed my name.

Jesus told me that the world would hate me if he changed my name.
Then, as she finished, a Friend who had earliler been admonished to postpone asking a question during the leaders' opening presentations tried to ask her a question. He was gently cut off again and reminded that we were in worship. I was immediately glad, because the song was still working its way through me and didn't want the meeting to dissolve into discussion. But when he got up to walk out, I felt sad and sorry.

Before he could leave the room, however, another woman spoke directly to him. I can't remember exactly what she said, but it was to the effect that his question was part of the worship, too, and that she wanted to hear his question, that we all needed to hear it. He stopped and asked, "So I can ask my question?" And she said, and the group assented, "Yes."

So he sat down, and addressing the singer by name, asked, "What did Jesus ask you to change your name to."

For me, that was the moment it all cracked open. What had all the marks of dissolving into a disruptive, disconnected discussion was redeemed by the loving and courageous voice of the woman and the equal courage of the Friend who returned to ask his question, and by the Living God who visited with us for a while.

The remainder of the worship was deep and most of the messages had the character of testimony of a quality I have seldom if ever witnessed in a Friends meeting.

I can't remember everything that followed, partially because I was trying to get up the nerve to answer the Friend's question myself. Instead of simply standing and saying it, I took out my pocket New Testament to look up the verse I wanted so I could read it accurately, but couldn't find it.

What I was looking for was this:
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15 NIV).
That's how Jesus changed my name (and yours too), from servant to friend. That's what I wish I had said.

The rest of the meeting was a you-had-to-be-there experience that I can't describe here.

Like others who have reported, there was a funny moment near the end when the Friend got a cell phone call while testifying, giving the leaders the opportunity to break the meeting on time. And I enjoyed meeting some of the other bloggers and posing for photos with them. But I mis-heard the directions for the follow-up meeting with the young Friends and stood for a half-hour at the bell tower instead of the clock tower and missed most of the subsequent conversation with the young Friends.

There was something very real and very powerful going on in that meeting. For myself, I took it as a call to stop whining about the lack of evangelical fervor of contemporary Friends and to be a little more fervent myself.

Sacred Harp singing.

I got to sing from the Sacred Harp five hours a day, three in the workshop and two more in the afternoon. For five days. At our conventions, we generally sing about six hours, but only for a day or two. Was this heaven, or what?

The workshop went well from my point of view, but I'm hardly objective. All I can say is that I loved every person in the workshop more when it was over than when we began, which is always a good sign. I'll leave it to other workshop participants to say more about it.

It was the afternoon singings that felt particularly sweet and surprising. I was a co-coordinator of the afternoon sings with two others, my workshop co-leader and a Friend who has faithfully assembled the afternoon singing for many years. Last year, he led a movement to ask the Gathering planning committee to give us two hours to sing.

We had noticed that the afternoon singings were often kind of ragged and inconsistent in quality. The first fifteen minutes or so were spent organizing it and rearranging the chairs from the previous hour's activity, and the end always came before we had really settled into a single heart and mind. There was also a tendency to sing too many difficult songs too early in order to get them sung, and not enough tie to sing simpler ones that wouldn't overwhelm newer singers from the start. And many Friends were unable to sing because of unavoidable conflicts during the singing time slot. So a lot of us asked for a two hour singing slot, and it happened.

The room assigned for the workshopand the afternoon singing was adequate, but far from optimal. It was too warm, smallish. and the carpeted floor absorbed rather than reflected the sound. While we found it adequate for the workshop (and we couldn't find anyplace better), for the afternoon singing we wanted something more satisfactory. My co-leader had early on identified the porch on the south side of the University Center, under a parapet, that, along with the concrete floor, gave good amplification as a promising site for the afternoon singings.

I initially resisted singing two hours outdoors because it often hurts my voice, but when the group decided on Sunday afternoon that it was where they wanted to sing, I went along, and I am glad I did. The afternoon singings were well-attended -- between 30 and 40 singers at all times -- and the quality of singing was unusually good. I think that having the two-hour format allowed more experienced singers to join in as they could, and being outside attracted those who would not have found us in our fourth floor workshop room.

One of the nicest things was seeing the many Friends who stopped briefly to observe us singing and the smiles on their faces. We also heard many comments from Friends from all parts of the campus who could hear us and that it sounded beautiful.

One day, though, a woman came up the steps and stood there, obviously waiting for us to finish a song so she could tell us something. When the song was over, she said, "I just came from the Healing Center way across on the other side of campus." "Oh no," I thought, "she's going to tell us that our caterwalling sent some poor Friend into a relapse and to show some consideration for others and take our screeching indoors."

But she actually said, "It sounds great!"

I spoke with another singer near the end of the Gathering about how well the afternoon singing went, and he said, "I wanted to walk across campus and hear how it sounded myself, but then I couldn't sing, and I want to sing." He spoke my mind, too.

On the second to last day, during the brief silent worship that ended each afternoon sing, several Friends -- five or six of them, each of them accomplished and experienced singers -- spoke as to how they had first heard and learned to sing Sacred Harp music at a Gathering (as I had) years ago and how happy they were that it led them to singing in their own home communities.

Freedom Friends Church.

The final thing I want to mention right now was how much I enjoyed the outreach event that Peggy Senger Parsons and Alivia Biko gave on Thursday afternoon. They are the pastor and presiding clerk, respectively, of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, and gave a demonstration of the kind of worship they hold there. I liked many things about the demonstration, but especially the explanation that Peggy gave for singing as the first part of the meeting. It puts us all in the same key, she said, and is likely to make what follows in harmony. I've found that to be true not only with music, but also in the semi-programmed worship at Minneapolis Friends Meeting where song and a brief prepared message often begins the meeting and sets the tone (another musical metaphor) for the remainder of the open worship time.

I also was struck with the simple but profound testimony Peggy gave when asked "What about Jesus?" Among other things, she said that she could no more not be in relationship with the resurrected Jesus than she could forget to breath.

She also was asled to explain why Freedom Friends Church was not now clear to affiliate with either its immediate ancestor, Northwest Yearly Meeting, or its FGC-like alternative, North Pacific YM. She explained that the radical inclusiveness that Freedom lives out, and its reunciation of fundamentalism in all its forms, puts it "out of harmony" with NWYM's Faith & Practice. But when asked whether her church was in harmony with North Pacific's Faith & Practice, she also said, "no", but more for the things that NPYM's F&P does not say than for what it does.

I was pleased that so many other Friends were able to attend that session. I believe that the ministry Peggy and Alivia are carrying out in Salem has meaning and importance to the entire body of Friends, especially those affiliated with FGC, and I hope we have more opportunities to hear it.


This is a long post -- perhaps too long for this medium -- but I wanted to get it out while the Gathering was still somewhat fresh in my mind. I may have more to say later, but that's it for tonight.


Robin M. said...

Oh Paul. It was so good to meet you in person. It was wonderful that my husband had such a good time singing in the afternoons with you all. It is moving to read this post, now with a sense of your face and your voice to go with it.

In the interest group, I didn't hear the question about the song the same way you did. But that's okay. I would have been more patient if I had heard it as you did. You're right that it had the potential to become a tiresome discussion at that point, and it didn't. For that, I am truly thankful. And I too was thankful for the Friend's words about the first Friends meeting in Galilee and the 12 dolts. Funny and profound - that's always a rich combination for me.

Paul L said...

I also enjoyed meeting you and Chris and your boys. Watching Chris corral them from their program to bring them to the picnic took me back many years when I had little ones that age.

I look forward to another year of reading your thoughts and of seeing you again next summer.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul, thanks for sharing your experience. It is so amazing to read everyone reacted to this. I hadn't thought of the pseudo-disruptor's question, "What did Jesus ask you to change your name to?" as so revelatory but now I see how it could be seen that way. Neat. By the way, I thought the outdoor singing was wonderful, even if I only had a chance to overhear it as I rushed between events.

Liz Opp said...


What a wonderful week you most certainly had! And I am glad you took all the time and space and words you needed to write such thorough summaries of these Gathering opportunities! There were things you brought up about Peggy's and Alivia's session that I had forgotten about; and I'd like to think that I was one of those non-singing visitors who had a wide grin on her face, just hearing the joy and feeling the Spirit among you all.

The thing that fascinated me about the Friend in the interest group who wanted his question answered was how the rest of us held not only the space for that exchange to happen, but also helped maintain the depth of worship that surrounded it. When the exchange was done, it felt as if worship had never been interrupted in the first place.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for writing this. I am the woman who sang at the interest group, and it was a powerful experience for me to be faithful to the ministry I was given. Standing to sing, and being called on again to answer Tom King's question, left me tender for some time after the meeting. That experience has left me questioning how readily I have often spoken in meeting at times when it was easier to do so, and has left me waiting to go deeper into worship.

As I remember it, I started having a quaking feeling during the discussion while another woman was sharing her experiences at some length. As I sat with that, I knew I had to stand as soon as she was done speaking to claim the space for silent worship--a strange impatience and readiness, while I looked down at my dress literally shaking. When she finished, I stood with my eyes closed, and shortly thereafter heard another voice break the silence as if continuing the discussion, and then a few murmurs of interruption and a feeling that others in the room were indicating my standing in worship. After a few more moments, I told the story of learning this song for Rachel Findley's workshop on John Woolman, and how it had been working on me ever since. The lyrics are:

I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name (3x)
Jesus told me I would have to live humble if he changed my name (3x)
I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name (3x)
Jesus told me that the world would hate me if he changed my name (3x)
I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name (3x)

I only opened my eyes once during my message, to offer that Friends were welcome to sing with me if so moved. After I sat down, we remained in worship. A man I didn't know shared the message about Jesus and the twelve dolts, which you described, saying that only in the context of his experience with his own meeting could he understand Jesus' continuing love for them.

It was after his message that Tom King said, "Can I ask a question?", and Liz Oppenheimer and other Friends expressed the sense that we had entered into worship, as you described. The question he asked me was, "What does that mean, 'if he changed my name'?" (Knowing Tom, I understood this as seeking to define the historical meaning of the lyrics, a context I had no information on.) I sensed some fear in the question, and knew well that the song itself could be experienced as a challenge. So (with much divine assistance) my answer addressed my own experience of laboring with the song in the preceding several weeks, and acknowledged that we might each have our own experience of it. I spoke of contexts in which people voluntarily change their names (marriage, the monastic life, becoming a disciple), and also of the contrast I saw between letting ourselves be changed and recreated in God's image, vs. recreating God into an image we could be comfortable with, which might not challenge us. I closed by saying, "This song challenges me." Tom repeated: "But does 'if he changed my name' mean anything?", and I responded, "I shared my experience, and I asked you to live yours."

Thank you for your description of what was indeed a deeply gathered meeting, and for sharing your experience of how the song has gone on working on you. If anyone wants to hear it, I adapted it from the singing of Marian Anderson ("If He Change My Name" from the album "Spirituals") and Bertha Gober ("I Told Jesus" from the Smithsonian Folkways album "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement"). I understand it has also been recorded by Nina Simone.

May we all learn to say yes to God's challenges...

Lisa Hubbell
(Strawberry Creek Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting)

Paul L said...

Thank you, Lisa, for this detailed and inspired response.

Your account of what happend is amazing and accurate, though I wouldn't have been able to recite the details myself; what you say is exactly what happened, from my memory. I'm especially glad that you reminded me of your response to the times that people do change their names -- that was a very important point to me at the time, and I'm glad to have been reminded of it.

Isn't it amazing how we can continue to speak with each other, over time and space, long after we depart from each other's physical company?

I am so grateful that you posted this.

Chris M. said...

Mmmmm.... Thank you, Paul and commenters. It is good to remember these occasions again.

Paul, it was wonderful to meet you and Lovely Wife. Thank you especially for the hospitality at the afternoon sings. Your welcoming support certainly helped me sing better. Sacred Harp really re-aligns your molecules, I'm convinced!

And let us remember Peggy's message for the Friends in the room during her presentation: "There are pockets of glowing embers around you. Keep blowing on them."

Lisa H said...

Hi Paul! Thanks to your inspiration, as well as the workshop, I've started a Quaker blog myself. It's called Rooted and Grounded in Love.

Peace, Lisa

Paul L said...

Welcome to the sphere, Lisa. I already have enjoyed your account of the train ride to Tacoma, and your reference to the Green Tortise.