Sunday, November 02, 2008

Born to Live

When I was a freshman in college, our 9:05 classes ended at 9:55, and then there was a chapel break after which the next class started at 11. I went to chapel sometimes, but one day I didn’t and went to my dorm room. I turned on the radio, which was tuned to the classical music station I liked to listen to.

But that day, there wasn’t music, but his voice, this rough, gravely voice, full of energy and passion, asking questions. I have no idea who the guest was that day, but it was my introduction to Studs Terkel. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was a gem, and for the twenty years I lived within the signal of WFMT, I was a regular and devoted listener. When I was unable to listen to the show in the morning, I listened to the Sunday evening rebroadcast.

I have three particular memories of Studs’ broadcasts. In 1981, I was unemployed and staying home with the kids and listened to Studs each day. On Monday, he said that his friend, the Chicago author Nelson Algren, had died, and was going to devote the week to him. There were a couple of interviews with Algren and some of his friends, but the bulk of the week was Studs reading from Algren’s works. I was sort of familiar with the Man with the Golden Arm, but nothing else of Algren’s, and now when I read him I hear Stud’s voice.

Algren is an unjustly under appreciated writer – he thought so, at least – but not by Studs. He understood Algren and obviously loved him and his work. (He was a founder of the Nelson Algren Committee that got Algren's work back in print.) I’ve been an Algren fan ever since.

The second memorable broadcast was really a brief excerpt a show, the context of which I can’t remember. Studs was interviewing his friend Mahalia Jackson in the hospital where she was recuperating from something or another, and while he was there Dr. Martin Luther King walked into the room to visit her, too. Studs left the tape recorder on recorded the most beautiful interchange between Mahalia and her friend Martin, absolutely authentic, full of love and humor, with some mild teasing if I’m remembering correctly. It is the only recording I’ve ever heard of Dr. King in a candid, non-public situation.

Finally, there is an one hour show he produced in 1960 entitled “Born to Live.” I think it puts everything about Studs’ life as a radio person and his message to the world. WFMT broadcast it mid-morning each New Year’s Day, and after having obtained a copy of the Folkways-Smithsonian CD, I continue the tradition to this day.

Here is how Studs describes the program:

With Born To Live I had the help - more than the help, the collaboration - of Jim Unrath, who was an announcer at the station. He and I worked together on all the documentaries, and all on his own time. As I told you earlier, I'm inept mechanically. Jimmy gathered all the stuff. He knew the way I was thinking. Born to Live is a collage montage of voices.

How to explain this? There was a contest called the Prix Italia. It's the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, you might say, for radio and TV documentaries and features. And Dennis Mitchell had won it for Morning In The Streets. So Rita Jacobs said, “Let's submit it.” Well, very few American stations ever win. It's won by BBC or Stockholm or wherever.

So I thought of all the interviews that I had, and there's this one that was sponsored by UNESCO as a special interview. It was 1961, I think, that we started doing it. The Cold War was going on pretty hot. And UNESCO says, “Can't there be one program of East/West values to lower the temperature of heated discussion?”

What came into my mind when we decided to enter the contest - with the odds about a thousand to one - was interviewing a hibakisha, one of the Hiroshima maidens, they were called, who survived the August 9th atomic bombing. She was talking through an interpreter. She’d been brought by the wife of a Quaker who ran that ship The Golden Rule, challenging the nuclear stuff. As she talked, I thought, “I’m going to open with that.”

And then I thought of other tapes I’d done. One of a street worker talking to a kid, a tough kid who's got a tattoo that says “Born To Die”. There are tattoos on his fingers: die, death, D-E-A-T-H. The street worker says, "What about the time between you're born and the time you die? What about that?"

“I don't know. What is it?”

And then I say, “Time to live.” See? And then snip. [snaps]

Little thoughts. And music. Pete Seeger doodling on a banjo, but he's doodling the chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth. Then it cuts to someone else - two couples in a suburb talking about their kids: “And so she says to me, ‘Well, might as well live today, tomorrow you're gonna die. I don't know how long I'll live.’” :How old is she?” “Nine.” And in between and interspersed are children's songs, American children's songs and Japanese children's songs. And then finally I say, “Born to live. What about the time between you're born and the time you die?” Then all the voices start. Some dealing with humor and laughter and some dealing with myth and legend, and the voice of Jimmy Baldwin and the voice of Miriam Makeba, the voice of Einstein. And John Ciardi says, “Sometimes you can tell the difference between a large decision and a small decision. Sometimes it's the sound of it. When I was a kid I used to hear Caruso records. I heard them in these Italian households in Providence, Rhode Island, I’d hear these Caruso records. And you think, ‘That’s as far as a human voice can go./ And there he'd go one step further.” Then I slip in the voice of Caruso singing “Oh, paradisio,” as he goes one step higher. And then Charlie saying, “ . . . .tell the difference between a small decision and a giant decision.” Then it cuts to the voice of Sean O’Casey, and Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. And then it cuts to the voice of a child.

In any event, it had everything. But I was influenced by Dennis Mitchell as well as by Norman Corwin. Sounds need not have a narrator. I got that from Mitchell. Just let the ideas flow from one to the other.
You will never spend a better hour than listening to this program.

Studs died last week, at 96. He'd been frail, especially after a recent fall, and practically deaf they say. I last saw him in 2002 at Macalester College in St. Paul. He was on a book tour promoting his book, Will the Circle be Unbroken, an anthology of interviews with people about death and what happens afterwards.

I can't imagine that he had any regrets at the end except possibly one: that he didn't live to see his fellow Chicagoan, Barak Obama, win election as president of the United States. He died knowing it was going to happen, though, like Moses maybe.

As he always signed off his broadcasts, "Take it easy, but take it."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

We march in love: Further reflections on the RNC in St Paul

To continue from the previous post, our friend was not arrested and did not have to seek sanctuary in the meetinghouse except for Saturday night. She did have a frightening conversation with the Ramsey County sheriff who told her that she was indeed "on the list" but had not been arrested -- yet -- because she was perceived as a moderating influence on the young people in the RNC Welcoming Committee. So she is safe for the time being. (You can hear from her, and others on the RNC WC in a lengthy and provocative press conference here.)

It's too much for me to comprehensively update on the situation in St. Paul regarding the Republican National Convention and the protests surrounding it. Suffice it to sat that total arrests exceeded 800 and that many people here are very unhappy with the law enforcement responses. Here are some links that tell much of the story:

Minnesota Public Radio has excellent coverage here and elsewhere on its site
Democracy Now! and here and here and elsewhere.
Glenn Greenwald at and here and here
Minnesota Independent and here and here and here and elsewhere on its site

As far as I know, there was no organized, corporate Quaker presence or response to the RNC, but many Quakers were involved in the week's events in different ways. Several dozen of us participated in the largest public protest of the week, a march of 10,000 on Monday afternoon.

Some worked as "field medics" to provide first aid to marchers and other protesters and some worked in a healing center across from a hospital the entire week; others worked all week on the Minnesota Peace Team, yellow-tuniced people trained to keep a buffer between police and protesters. Some helped set up and staffed the American Friends Service Committee's Eyes Wide Open installation on the State Capitol lawn on Tuesday. A few of us were legal observers and volunteered with the National Lawyers Guild or American Civil Liberties Union to represent arrestees at bail hearings and first appearances. Others housed out-of-town protesters. At least one turned his bike into a puppet for the week. And probably other things that I'm forgetting or don't know.

Regarding the Monday march, there was nothing terribly unique or remarkable to report to anyone who has attended similar events. There were the usual wonderful variety of signs, costumes, flags and banners, and theatrics. There were marchers of all colors, nationalities, religions, and ages, including many families with children. The overall mood was confident and purposeful, but not earnest or somber. Some might also say not serious. Perhaps so, but I remarked to someone that there was more life in this crowd than there would be the entire week in the Excel Center where the RNC was being held.

But there was a counterweight to this joyful and life-affirming vibe.

Though I don't have any photos of the shoulder-to-shoulder armored riot police that were at every intersection during the march, the police presence was pervasive and overwhelming. To be fair, the people associated with the RNC Welcoming Committee had threatened to use physical force -- whether that force was "violent" or not is a definitional question I won't wade into for the moment -- to prevent delegates from arriving at the Xcel Center where the convention was being held, and I don't think it was unreasonable for the police to be prepared and to try to thwart their plans.

And, to a certain extent the threats came to pass: a few groups broke off from the main march route, broke a window or two, and generally ran wild. There are also reports that some one threw a rock that broke a window of bus carrying delegates, and that another delegation said they were sprayed with some kind of liquid that burned their eyes and discolored their clothing. (Pioneer Press story here.)

But I was appalled at the disproportionality of the display of force throughout the week. It started with forcible entries to four or five homes Saturday morning to arrest RNC WC members and to execute search warrants. Police reportedly used battering rams to break open unlocked doors and came in with drawn guns, despite there being no reason to suspect that the residents posed any threat of violent resistance. There were also many reports of harassment of journalists prior to and throughout the week.

At the march, hundreds of police were dressed head-to-toe in armor and battle gear, far exceeding any danger they may have reasonably anticipated, especially from the 10,000 peaceful marchers. The display seemed clearly intended to frighten and intimidate others by creating a false aura of danger, creating fear and uncertainty in the public mind. I cannot escape the conclusion that the police let themselves be used as part of a larger propaganda and public relations effort to delegitimize the protesters.

From my perspective, the enormous and costly effort to protect the RNC exposed the falsity of it all. The RNC was so sanitized, scripted, and phony that it amounted to nothing more (or less) than a four-day political advertisement in which the "news" media were nothing more (or less) than extras or cameo celebrities. (The same, of course, is true of the Democratic convention.) It had to take place behind an enormous security barrier -- physical and human -- in order to "protect" it -- not from any real danger, but from having to encounter dissenting opinions.

The following statement from the St. Paul Green Party (largely written by a Green Quaker) pretty much sums up my feelings and position on the whole thing:

It is with deep sadness that St. Paul Greens have seen our city become an armed camp during the past week. The presence of the RNC gave St. Paul an opportunity to set a shining example of a community where diversity of opinion and freedom of expression are welcomed and where civil disobedience is handled firmly but with restraint. The result would have been trust and respect for law officers and a long step toward realizing our vision of St. Paul as one of the world’s greenest cities.

Instead we have seen a virtual army of anonymous, heavily armored and armed troopers take control of our streets. We have seen how helpless and compliant our local authorities are in the face of such a quasi-military occupation. And we have experienced a sense of violation as our homes and meeting places have been invaded on the flimsiest of excuses, our roads and bridges closed to traffic without warning, and our jails packed with people who were rounded up brutally and indiscriminately. Some are angry young protesters, some are journalists who were seeking to do their jobs, and some are citizens who simply ventured to ask questions.

We were told it would not be this way. We feel misled and betrayed. We ask that our city council and county commissioners authorize an independent investigation along the lines suggested in Minneapolis by council members Cam Gordon and Gary Schiff./blockquote>

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quakers and the RNC in St. Paul: God is in the midst of the city

It's been a sleepy August, but the arrival of the Republican National Convention here next week has gotten things jumping.

Beginning on Friday, word was spreading about several police preemptive raids and arrests of protesters intending to demonstrate at the RNC. That night, a "convergence center" that was to serve as a rallying and welcoming spot for out-of-town protesters was raided pursuant to a search warrant and certain materials allegedly intended for use in disrupting the convention were seized. About 50-60 people were cuffed and detained at gunpoint while the search was being conducted.

Saturday morning, several homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul were raided. Again, allegedly dangerous materials (warrant here) were seized, but this time at least five people were arrested on conspiracy to riot warrants. (Story here.) There were also reports of police harassment of alternative media organizations over the past few days -- equipment confiscated, reporters detained briefly but not arrested or charged. (Story here.)

Then last evening (Saturday), I got a call informing me that a well-respected member of our meeting feared that she might be liable to be arrested for her work with the RNC Welcoming Committee, a self-described anarchists /anti-authoritarians organizing committee. She wanted to take sanctuary in our meetinghouse in St. Paul in order to be free to carry out her logistical work in arranging housing, medical care, and legal assistance to visiting demonstrators. But given our lack of strong central executive decision-making capacity it was difficult even for a long-time member like her to know how to ask. So she started calling Friends who she thought were most likely to object, no one said "no" outright, one thing led to another and I got a call too.

I spoke with the clerk of the meeting, and we agreed that when in doubt, we should worship, so at about 6:30 we started getting the word out via telephone and e-mail, and by the time the meeting started about 8 pm we had more than thirty people, and more came in as they got the word. We had a very deep worship, very centered, very present. At 9 or so, our Friend spoke, described her situation, and answered many questions.

We were, of course, a body of uncertain status -- it was (just) a large group of Friends who had gotten together ad hoc on a moment's notice, looking to what God was calling for us to do here and now. By the end of the meeting, we were clear that our Friend (and two colleagues) could spend the night in our meetinghouse and that a few of us would also stay over to provide support and to witness anything that might occur. One family said they'd come back to make breakfast the next morning.

I was one who slept over. After going home to get my stuff, I slept in a First Day School room on the busy Grand Ave. side of the building. While I went to bed believing that it was extremely unlikely that the police would show up and expecting an easy sleep, I found that I was startled by every slamming car door, firecracker, helicopter fly-over, group of male voices (who all turned out to be college students walking home from parties), and other noises that might have signaled a raid; the last time I ran to the window was 3:30 am.

At about 7:30, I was startled with a rap on the door and a voice that I thought said, "Arrest is imminent." So I pulled on my clothes and ran out, only to find that it was
breakfast that was imminent. I was relieved, and happy for the good food.

Worship continued at the regular 8:30 time, followed by another discussion that ran right up until the 11 o'clock worship meeting. This discussion was very interesting; a lot of support for our Friend was expressed, as well as concern that that support not be misinterpreted as agreement with or complicity with some of the more forceful tactics the RNC Welcoming Committee had in mind. But there was a pretty clear sense that we needed to support our sister, and we set up a small committee to coordinate and oversee that. She has since left the meetinghouse and may or may not return tonight. If she does, we will be there with her.

Tomorrow, there is a protest march "planned" (the quotes are to indicate that there seems to be a lot of loose ends involved with it), and we Quakers will meet at the Floyd B. Olson statute on the Capitol grounds and are planning to march together. If the 50,000 announced number of people show up, it will be a logistical nightmare to move them through the approved parade route during the three hours that has been allocated -- the route has to double back on itself when it reaches the convention hall to return to the state capitol starting point. No one knows what will happen, but I and many others will be there to witness to it and to help as we can.

I don't mean for this to be a news report so much as a comment on how well our meeting has responded to this crisis (if that's the word). It feels that we have kept our focus on responding to our Friend in need and have mostly resisted using this episode to make larger ideological statements. Even those who have had serious political and moral reservations about the Welcoming Committee's strategy and (more importantly) its tactics were able to differentiate between that opinion and the need to support our Friend. There is a lot of uncertainty remaining, of course, but I am confident that we will take each step as it is shown us.

For my part, I was led to offer two pieces of vocal ministry. This morning, I mediated on the two times (that I remember) Jesus rebuked his disciples during his passion. First was when Peter, James and John could not keep awake with him for an hour while he went off to pray in Gethsemane -- here he was about to die and they couldn't even
be with him for an hour? Second was when Jesus told Peter to put his sword away after Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant and Jesus says, in effect, "Put away your sword. Do you think I need your help? Or your puny sword's? You're more likely to end up cutting yourself." This tells us something about how Jesus wants us to respond in times of crisis.

I then noted the parallel with our own history in 1661 when the historic declaration from "the harmless and innocent people of God called Quakers" was presented to Charles Stuart, king of England. That document was mainly intended to disassociate Quakers from the revolutionary Fifth Monarchy Men and other secret conspiracies that were (in fact) threatening the King's government. But far from being a call to complicity with the Powers that Were, it stated a revolutionary purpose as well that was far more threatening than a small group of armed men:

We earnestly desire and wait that by the Word of God's power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of his Christ, that he may rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth, that thereby all people . . . . And our weapons are spiritual and not carnal, yet mighty through God to the plucking down of the strongholds of Satan, who is author of wars, fighting, murder, and plots.
Thus, they declared, they were neither collaborators with the king, nor his enemy, but were beholden to a more sovereign authority who would in his own time and his own way put the government in its place. This was what made them dangerous, and what should make us no less so.

Last night, because there was a veil of fear and apprehension over our city and our meeting, I was moved to read Psalm 46 (NRSV):
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,

3 though its waters roar and foam
though the mountains tremble with their tumult.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city, it shall not be moved;
God will help when the morning dawns.

6 Nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The LORD of Hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

8 Come behold the works of the LORD,
the what desolation he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

10 "Be still, and know that I am God;
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth."

11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
I was also reminded of a verse from Pete Seeger's song, Old Devil Time:
Old devil fear, you with your icy hands
Old devil fear, you'd like to freeze me cold
When I'm afraid, my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time.
More later as it develops.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

In the beginning: Genesis on my mind

Genesis has been on my mind a lot recently.

First, there are at least two excellent discussions of Genesis going on on right now in Quaker-related blogs.

Peter Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections has just concluded a 5-part (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3, pt 4, pt 5) series of very thoughtful posts (plus one post-script) on his recent reading of Genesis and has generated many equally thoughtful (and provocative) responses. I especially appreciated Peter's approach, which is, in his words:

I’m not reading the Bible for poetry. I want to know what it says. I think I’m a pretty unusual reader of the Bible in that I find myself reading it as a writer, and what I want most to understand in the Bible is the mindset and the experiences of its writers. I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d. That distinction is important, because so many readers of the Bible bring to it a crushing burden of pious preconceptions. Modern Christian (and Jewish) understandings of G*d grew out of traditions that changed and developed over time, and these traditions left Biblical texts like breadcrumbs along the path. But those texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted since, so thoroughly and so often, that it’s very hard for a modern reader even to hear the writers’ original words over the heckling of later critics from St. Paul through Thomas Aquinas and right on up through Jerry Falwell and his ilk.

As a writer, my prejudice is: Let the writers say what they meant to say. Agree with it or disagree, but don’t try to warp it or twist it or rewrite it to your own liking, because that, let me tell you, is the most violent, the most discouraging thing you can do to a writer.

And I’ve got to say, reading Genesis on its own terms, it’s a freaky little book.
Yes it is. (This isn't the only approach, of course. I read Genesis and the rest of the Bible precisely for the purpose of understanding God, or more precisely to understand what God wants to understand about Himself. But Peter's approach is also an honest and productive one, as long as one is willing to be open to the possibility that the Living God does, in fact, speak through the Scriptures, as well as in other ways, and you don't cheat the game by refusing to accept the possibility that you will be changed.)

A less active, but equally interesting, discussion of Genesis is happening over at Kwaker Skripture Study, a group blog with, alas, only two active participants at the moment. (Actually, the Genesis discussion has only begun; I base my evaluation of the quality of the discussion on their previous trips through other books, most recently Revelation.) They've been looking for more Friends to participate more actively on the blog, and I encourage you to do so. I've been impressed with their past discussions in how well they reflect the Quaker way of approaching Scripture.

Though not a Quaker, David Plotz's series Blogging the Bible at should be of interest to anyone interested in a fresh and positive look at the Good Book. He blogged the entire Old Testament over the course of a year or so, but his initial eight posts on Genesis can be found here. Among his many virtues, Plotz's posts are as funny as they are informative. (Plotz is also the new editor of

Then, by serendipity, I read Madeline l'Engle's Genesis Trilogy a few months ago. It is an anthology of her three shorter works: And it was good, A stone for a pillow, and Sold into Egypt. Her work is notable in how she relates her meditations on the texts to her own personal life. Her husband, Hugh, died during the writing of the latter book, and the way in which she works out her grief and finds sympathy in some of the characters in Genesis is beautifully done. I also enjoyed her ability to consider the various fascinating characters in Genesis, especially the women, as full-bodied human beings, imagining their feelings, motives, and conversations as if they were characters in a novel. (I also was surprised [but shouldn't have been] to find the Walter Wink acknowledged Madeline as an inspiration for his book, The Powers that Be.)

And then I myself read Genesis again after my workshop at FGC Gathering ("User's Guide to the Bible"). That re-reading has in turn led me to buy a used copy of the Anchor Bible translation and commentary on e-bay.

I have no idea whether this means anything, but I am aware of the convergence of Genesis in my life recently. I think it's part of a renewed determination to more systematically study the Bible that I've wanted and intended to do for years but never felt I had the proper framework within which to carry it out. I think I now have enough from my workshop, Michael Birkel's Engaging Scripture, Paul Buckley & Stephen Angell's (ed.) The Quaker Bible Reader, and Walter Wink's Transforming Bible Study to get me started more productively.

I'm reminded of an image from Nikos Kazantzakis's masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, he has Jesus at one point express exasperation while reading the Scripture as if the letters on the page were bars on a window keeping the Truth from shining through. That's a power image and one that I know well.

But I also have often felt as if the words on the page of the Bible were the windows through which I could see into another world, windows through which I could slip through if only I kept at it diligently and with the right attitude.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joy in the morning

If there's any better way to start a Saturday morning then to hear that you're going to be the grandfather to twins come January, I don't know what it would be.

My face is frozen in a semi-permanent grin, and my brain is famished for words at the moment.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A radiant indifference to words

From "Personal History: Altered State -- Pennsylvania, blackness, and the art of being foreign" by Andrea Lee in the June 30, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. The author is describing her experience as a fifth-grade student at Lansdowne Friends School when she and her classmates were called on to recite Psalm 19 at Thursday morning meeting for worship to the elders of the meeting and the rest of the school:

For a long time, things go without a hitch, but on the morning of Psalm 19 our class fails. First, the short, deep-voiced boy who is our bellwether stumbles over his verse and, purple-faced, shudders to a halt. And I, with gold ready to pour from my lips*, simply freeze. At Teacher's frenzied prompting, we burst into the chorus, about errors and secret faults.** But the words are a tripwire: somebody's helpless giggle becomes a rout. We double over, choking with uncontrollable laughter.

The beams of the meetinghouse ring with the echo of our debacle, and we wither under the sidelong smirks of the sixth grade. Still, after a minute, a curious transformation occurs. One by one, we are able to look up at the faces of the elders, which are not severe and condemning, nor yet smiling with the kind of amused indulgence with which grownups greet endearing childish mishaps. Nor do they display any desire to make this a character-building experience. Those old faces are simply present: alert; regarding us and the rest of the hall with a boundless, patient comprehension that raises us to their own dignified level. We let the silence flow back. And, gradually, something becomes clear: a kind of radiant indifference to words, mistaken or correct. What the elders, the Friends, pass on to us this morning is an inkling of how strong silence is. Essential; eternal. But common, in the best sense. Always there, if we can only listen for it. Inside or outside meeting.

* v 9-10: The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

** v 12Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Joy of Living

Immediately after the Gathering, our family of four drove to Colorado to join the rest of Lovely Wife's family -- two brothers, sister, spouses, nieces & nephews [except one] and partners: a total of 18 people. This reunion was planned last fall when we all gathered in Minneapolis for Lovely Wife's mother Barbara's memorial meeting at Twin Cities Friends Meeting. We so enjoyed being together that we planned to meet again in the summer, at which time we would attend to distributing Barbara's ashes in the mountains.

Both Barbara and her husband, Bruce, were born in Iowa but fell in love with Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when Bruce performed civilian public service in Denver during the Second World War. Later, after retirement, they bought a house next door to their eldest daughter and her husband, the Inventor, in Gold Hill, Colorado, a little mountain town about 3000 feet and 30 minutes above Boulder. The house was spacious and beautiful, facing east and south overlooking the cities of Boulder and Denver and the plains beyond. There they helped raise Sister Holly's three sons and hosted many family get-togethers.

When Bruce died in 1995, we all met in Gold Hill and buried most of his ashes in the town cemetery where we had a sweet and spontaneous family ceremony at the graveside. It was a beautiful, sunny April morning and we stood in a circle as we said a few words and sang a few songs after which Lovely Wife played her fiddle and led us in a procession down the hill and to the road. We then went to the Boulder Meeting's memorial meeting later that afternoon.

Later that summer, five of us (one son, Sister Holly's husband and two of their teenage sons, and me) took most of the rest of Bruce's ashes to the top of Gannett Peak, the tallest mountain in Wyoming, in the Wind River Range, which Bruce had never made it to the top of despite several attempts.

For Barbara, we originally intended to take her ashes to Mount Audubon, a 13,233 foot mountain that can be walked up in 3-4 hours without technical assistance (ropes, ice axes, etc.). But on Wednesday, the entire group walked up two other nearby 14,000 foot peaks -- Gray's and Torrey's -- and we realized that a 13,000 peak is a challenge to climb, even as a walk-up, especially for us flatlanders who hadn't gotten used to the altitude yet. All but two of the 18 made it to the top of one of either Gray's or Torrey's (one climbed both), but afterwards none of us were sure that we had it in us to climb Audubon just a few days later. (Photo on left is from the top of Gray's.)

So we changed our plans and decided to release some of Barbara's and some of Bruce's remaining ashes at Loveland Pass, on the Continental Divide that we would pass on our drive to Gold Hill. We arrived at Loveland Pass at about 11 o'clock and walked from the road up about 100 feet to the top of a nearby ridge.

As we had done before, we set the two boxes with ashes on a rock and stood in a circle around them and held what amounted to a brief meeting for worship. Everyone had the opportunity to say some words, and when that was done we each took a handful of the ashes of each and released them to the wind, which was very strong and immediately scattered them in the air along both sides of the Divide. (The family at Loveland Pass is on the right.)

Lovely Wife then led the procession down from the ridge playing "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" on her fiddle. I brought up the rear of the line. As I got to the parking lot, there was a family there sitting on some rocks, and one of the little girls was singing "She'll be coming 'round the mountain" to herself as I walked by.

On Friday, after arriving in Gold Hill, we planned another ceremony in the cemetery. Lovely Wife wanted there to be a bench at the gravesite, which is at the upper end of the hillside cemetery, so that visitors can rest and contemplate after making the climb.

The plan was then made to go out and find a large flat rock plus two smaller ones to make a simple, rustic bench. The Inventor and I scouted for the rocks about 10 miles from town at a place where he had scavenged some flat rocks years ago, and he identified the right one for the seat -- but it weighed upwards of 300 pounds and the two of us couldn't carry it the 200 yards to the road. So we went home and brought back a crew of six or seven men and a wheelbarrow, and together we carried it (and two smaller but heavy granite stones for the upright supports) to the car and brought them to the graveyard.

While we got the stones up the steep hill, we dug and found the box that contained the urn that held Bruce's ashes and pulled it out of the ground. The rest of the family joined us and once again we had a spontaneous ceremony. We poured most of Barbara's remaining ashes into the urn to be mixed with her husband's, and then we poured out tears and words of remembrance, gratitude, and love. After a while, we closed the urn, put it back into the ground, closed the box, and filled in the hole. One again, Lovely Wife played her fiddle as she led everyone down the hill back to the road.

Some of us men then re-climbed the hill and dug the holes and assembled the stone bench. As it happened, one end of the stone has two small, natural depressions exactly the size of the average human buttocks making it amazingly comfortable to sit on. By the end of the day, it was done and was deemed satisfactory by all.

Here's the view from the bench:

There was something very blessed and sweet about these two ceremonies. The pattern was set spontaneously thirteen years ago after Bruce's death, which Lovely Wife found surprising at the time because neither parent talked much about death (each had lost their same-sex parent while teenagers) and they were never "taught" what to do when a loved one dies. But somehow -- mainly through deep and abiding love -- they taught their children just what to do, and how to do it themselves without professional assistance. It was a blessing to be part of it.

Thirteen years ago, I sang a favorite song by Ewan McColl, "The Joy of Living", at Bruce's graveside and at the memorial meeting. Bruce, like Ewan, was a large, hearty man, and the song perfectly matched his spirit. This year, I just sang the fourth and final verse for Barbara on Loveland Pass:
Take me to some high place of heather, rock, and ling,
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind.
There where I will be part of all you see,
The air you are breathing.
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milk-wort and the sundew hung with diamonds.
I'll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair,
Reminding you how we shared,
In the joy of living.
(Listen to Ewan and Peggy Seeger sing the whole song here. Better get a hanky first.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Quakers' historic testimony against music and other frivolous entertainments does not apply to singing from the Sacred Harp

While catching up on the blogs while I've been away, I found this one from Martin Kelly discussing Thomas Clarkson's explanation of why early Quakers testified against music.

Martin quotes or paraphrases four reasons cited by Clarkson and correctly comments that the objections are valid concerns:

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless.
* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing (we've really decontextualized: much of the music played at orchestra halls is Masses; much of the music played at folk festival is church spirituals).
* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening.
* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion.
The point is that the early Quakers' concerns with music wasn't based on an ideological or theological construct, but was rather observations on concrete, practical effects of music on the spiritual life of individuals and meetings.

I'd reinforce Martin's observation that these concerns are valid and legitimate and that any Quaker involved in music should take them seriously. I'm therefore happy to report that Sacred Harp singing is not susceptible to these criticisms and may therefore be embraced by Quakers without fear for their souls.

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless. One beauty of Sacred Harp singing is that it is entirely group-oriented; there is simply no opportunity to show off as a soloist and a very strong social pressure not to do so even if you could. (There are some singers who succumb to the temptation to show off a bit as a leader, but in my experience this is uncommon.) The entire ethos of Sacred Harp singing is to experience the singing as part of the singing community as a whole. Ego satisfaction is therefore of minimal concern and is actively resisted.

* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing. While there are instances of Sacred Harp singing at folk festivals and other venues as a demonstration, and by formal choruses in a commercial setting, by and large Sacred Harp singers consider singing to be a form of worship (non-sectarian to be sure, but worship nonetheless) and is respected as such. This is especially true of conventions and day-long singings but also for many smaller, weekly and monthly singings.

* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening. Another of the beauties of Sacred Harp singing is that it does not take a lot of time to learn the rudiments; most people can learn the minimum basic skills with an hour or two of instruction; from then on it's learning by doing. And even less time is spent in "listening" passively to it -- it's meant to be sung, and even singers who may listen to recordings of singings end up singing along. Some singers may be accused of spending more time singing (or writing about singing. . . .) than certain family members may thing they should, but the risk is low and easily remedied.

* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion. Sacred Harp singers take a kind of ironic satisfaction in the unfashionable nature of our singing. Self-gratification may be a little more of a potential problem -- but again it isn't the individual "self" that is being glorified.

Martin also offers this quote from Clarkson:
Music at [the time of early Quakers] was principally in the hands of those, who made a livelihood of the art. Those who followed it as an accomplishment, or a recreation, were few and those followed it with moderation. But since those days, its progress has been immense. . . . Many of the middle classes, in imitation of the higher, have received it. . . . It is learned now, not as a source of occasional recreation, but as a complicated science, where perfection is insisted upon to make it worth of pursuit. p.76.
The early singing school teachers and shape-note tunebook writers would have agreed with this criticism. Their aim was to demystify the professionalization of music and to return it to the masses and therefore is consistent with the concern expressed in this criticism.

I am therefore more confident than ever that Sacred Harp singing has a place in modern Quakerism; in my personal experience, it has not only not led to the dangers cited by Clarkson but has led me back to Christ and a more authentic Quaker world view. Some of you know I've been "working" on an article discussing the many similarities (and some contrasts) between Quakerism and Sacred Harp singing, and when I finish it, I'll have more to say about it here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Singing at the Gathering

I started writing this from my dorm cot on the last night of this year’s FGC Gathering, and am finishing it from an apartment in the mountains near Keystone, Colorado. We (Lovely Wife and our two teenage children) drove the 1525 miles or so from Johnstown, PA, to here in one very long and one somewhat less long day. (I had a couple of manic hours where I though I could drive the final 7 hours through the night but a wiser head prevailed and we got a room in Kansas and slept from about 1 to 6 am.) We made it safely and timely, but it was at a cost to my sleep, and I am exhausted. So I've stayed home while the other 18 relatives (of Lovely Wife's family) are out on some kind of hiking adventure and I'm working on some writing projects.

The Gathering on the whole was a very positive and productive experience for me again this year, especially after the first two days when I was also exhausted from a long drive from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. Unlike last year, I did not take the time to post periodically during the week, but I have taken some notes that I hope will help my memory. I’ve decided to make several smaller posts and I’ll start with a report on the singing I did at the Gathering.

The fundamental lesson I learned is that singing is the only remedy for my depression that always works. I have known this for a long time, but haven't acted on it as diligently as I know I need to do. The singing I enjoyed was in three contexts.

For the first time in many years, I participated in the noon-time singing from Rise Up Singing, led this year by one of its co-producers, Annie Patterson. I've gotten a little tired of Rise Up Singing after many years singing from it for so many years, but since it was convenient for me to play with the small group that backed Annie up as she played guitar and led the singing, I gave it a go. The group had persons playing guitar, flute, tin whistle, clarinet, accordion, and violin in addition to my banjo. The instrumentalists were skilled and didn’t overpower the singing as sometimes happens and enhanced the singing experience.

And the singing was good -- high spirited, enthusiastic. The group numbered about a hundred most of the hour each day. For the songs that were easily sung by a group and that lent themselves to harmonies (e.g., This Land is Your Land, There is a Balm in Gilead, Goodnight Irene, Happy Wanderer, etc.) the singing was excellent with energy and joy.

But sometimes someone would select a song that they loved – for example, Thanksgiving Eve by Bob Franke, or Kate Wolf's Give Yourself to Love – that are beautiful songs, but are simply not good for large group singing, and it the energy would fall for a bit. Annie showed great equanimity and skill, however, in leading each one, knowing it was important to the person who chose the song.

The second important singing experience was with the Nightengales (which is how they spell it), a group of Northern and Illinois Yearly Meeting Friends who have been singing together for more than forty years. (I was introduced to them in 1980 and have sung with them often ever since.) We sang one night in a two-story, highly resonant lobby of a building and it was lovely. In recent years, they have sung exclusively a capella (which was not so much the case when I started singing with them), and it worked really well in that room, filling it with harmonies. The only downside was that, in such a large, resonant room, we had to sing slowly which depressed the energy in some of the songs, but overall it was excellent and beautiful. There were lots of tears which, as the Nightingale in Hans Christian Anderson's story tell the Emperor, are "the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart."

Singing with Nightengales these days always carries a particular poignancy as our older singers become disabled or pass away, and many songs carry a particular memory of them. This year, we were mindful of one Friend in particular who we know is dying of ALS and who was not able to attend either NYM or the Gathering.

But as much as I enjoyed these singings, the afternoon shape note singing was the most satisfying singing at the Gathering this year. We were once again given an space outdoors under an overhang, and while it was adequate, it was not as satisfactory an outdoor venue as in the past two years. One difficulty was that it was outside rooms in which various groups were trying to meet, and it was across a short way from a dormitory where some people tried to nap during our afternoon singings. After being informed (politely, but pointedly) that our music was not as appreciated as we thought it might be, we decamped to a log cabin at the other end of campus where we didn't disturb anyone but the bears, birds and rabbits in the surrounding woods.

Each afternoon, we had five or six singers on each part with a particularly large number of altos. The range of experience was mixed, but there was always enough experienced singers on each part. (It not being a workshop, we weren't prepared to provide more than a bare minimum of instruction to new singers.)

I was touched by the number of singers who first learned to sing Sacred Harp in one of the workshops I’ve co-led over the years who came to each afternoon singing (a few of whom who have attended three of them!). I don’t know why I’m surprised that others have come to love this music as much as I do, but it is satisfying to know that I may have had been able to transmit the depth of love and joy I get from singing from the Sacred Harp to others, especially my Quaker Friends with whom I share a bond even more deeply than I do with other singers.

The quality of the singing was generally good, though it varied. Though there was some excellent singing each day, the last day (Friday July 4) was clearly the strongest. Perhaps because it was the last day, we had a larger than normal group of singers, and that larger number, the improved acoustics, and a week's experience of singing together made for a powerful singing. There were several times where I felt it was truly a covered singing.

During the quiet worship we entered after our last song of the day (and of the week), I spoke to one of the parallels I feel between Sacred Harp singing and Quakerism, and that is that the quality of our experiences vary from time to time, but that if we persist we will always get back to that unity that we have been looking for and which we have been promised.

Some parts of our singings during the week were kind of rough -- we just couldn't find the right pitch or tempo, or hear the other parts, and some songs sounded pretty awful. Maybe we were simply tired, or maybe we bit off a little more than we could chew, but whatever the reason, we went through some pretty rough and unsatisfying spots.

I then noted that this same thing happens in meetings for worship. Often we come to meeting with as open a heart as we can manage, but nothing happens; there's no real unity and we leave without any sense of joy or elevation.

The important thing in both cases is that we return and try again. We go on to the next song, maybe choosing a less-challenging one or take a break, but we keep going and soon we're back in the groove and we're singing beautifully and powerfully again.

And with worship the same thing. We keep at it, coming back week after week, doing what we can as individuals to improve -- paying better attention, preparing more thoroughly, centering more deeply -- the worship experience. After some time, usually not too long, we will experience a genuinely covered meeting that will be felt by all.

The important thing in both contexts is that we keep at it and eventually, as we pay more attention to the true leader of our worship and of our singing, we will be brought back into harmony and unity with each other and be witnesses to the power that is over all.

* * * *

I'm glad I attended Gathering this year; I had originally intended to skip Gathering this year and to attend Camp Fasola in Alabama this year for some advanced instruction and learning in the Sacred Harp. But when I learned that Camp Fasola was going to be aimed at adults for only three days and for youth for the rest of the week (a decision I support but wasn't aware of until later), I decided I didn't want to sacrifice Gathering for such a short time of singing. In retrospect, I did the right thing. There was a lot of enthusiasm expressed for another Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop at next year's Gathering, and I'm going to give that serious consideration over the next few weeks.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The company we keep

This is from the on-line Slate magazine, writing to answer the question "What Orwell can teach Obama." It quotes George Orwell 's analysis of why so few working people were socialists, despite the fact that "[E]very thinking person knows that Socialism is a way out [of the world wide depression." A little to close to home, perhaps?:

One key to the movement's lack of popularity, Orwell argues, is its supporters. "As with the Christian religion," he writes, "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents." Then he wheels out the heavy rhetorical artillery. The typical socialist, according to Orwell, "is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism, or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler, and often with vegetarian leanings … with a social position he has no intention of forfeiting. . . . One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A prayer of passwords

From a list recently found in a drawer:


Monday, February 25, 2008

Meme book tag

OK, Rich. I will continue the meme -- the first I've ever been tagged with -- but I just can't find it in myself to continue the tagging. Partly because so many of those bloggers I read regularly enough that I would consider tagging have already been tagged, and partly because I don't know how! Do you actually have to leave a comment on their blogs? I never kept chain letters going, either, but I still don't take responsiblity for when the truck ran over grandma and the puppy. . . . But it still seems a little much to me. Tag yourself.

The instructions are:

1. Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. No cheating!
2. Find page 123
3. Find the first 5 sentences
4. Post the next 3 sentences
5. Tag 5 people

Actually, there are two books equidistant from where I sit. Here's the sixth, seventh, and eighth sentences from the first:

Three hundred women and some men came. A Declaration of Principles [sic]* was signed at the end of the meeting by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men. It made use of the language and rhythm of the Declaration of Independence: When it course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that they have hitherto occupied . . . .
* The document was actually captioned A Declaration of Sentiments

From, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, discussing the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, an event that has an obvious Quaker connection.

Here's the other:
2. Load the paper in the machine. See "Loading Paper" on page 22.
3. Ensure that the proper paper source is selected.
From, Canon Office All-in One Pixma MP830 User's Guide.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

My life in six words? Impossible!

Lovely Wife and I took a walk this morning -- it's her birthday. We stopped in a little gift-bookstore and I fell in love with a little book I found there, Not Quite What I was Planning, published by the on-line magazine Smith. Inspired by (the possibly apocryphal ) Ernest Hemmingway's famous six-word story, "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn," the book is a collection of six-word memoirs submitted by what must have been thousands of readers and writers. They range from the cute to the funny to the poignant. Here are a few of my favorites:

Born, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence.

It's like forever, only much shorter.

Tequila. Amnesia. Coincidence? I think not.

It was embarrassing, so don't ask.

Followed white rabbit. Became black sheep.

Thank God I lived through Vietnam.

I'm ten, and have an attitude.

Never really finished anything, except cake.

Did I miss a deadline again?

Many risky mistakes, very few regrets.

Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished.

Thank god the suicide attempt failed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


John Punshon writes on page 61 of his Encounter with Silence: "Once adopted, Quaker worship can be dangrous. Its characteristic sin is complacency." I know I've also mused here on the difference between contentedness (which I think is a virtue) and complacency (which is not), but I can't find the link to that post at the moment.

Anyway, I was moved by the wisdom and truth in this monolog in the Arlo & Janis cartoon strip yesterday. (You can see it here.) Arlo is talking over the breakfast table to Janis in four panes:

We really are lucky when you think abou it!

We have food, a nice home, a kid in college! We have each other -- and our health!

Yes sir, we should look at the big picture.

Or would that be the little picture?

It reminds me of another paradoxical dichotomy I may have written about here before. When Paul Wellstone died in October 2002, a lot of us began to wear green buttons that quoted him: "Stand up! Keep fighting!"

I remember worshiping at Morningside Meeting in New York City shortly thereafter. I was wearing the green button and I was moved to say: "I would like another button for my other lapel, a red one, maybe, that reads: "Sit down! Stop fighting!"

The Christian life is in constant tension between being simultaneously prophet and peacemaker, and I need to have both reminders to keep that tension in its proper balance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Quaker anarchism?

My Friend Phil Grove posted the following comment on my post the other day:

Glad to see you writing again! About the 1640s -- I'm very curious about the fact that the anarchist Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, arose in England at about the same time as the Quakers, and that Winstanley later became a Quaker. It seems to me that Quakerism has an affinity with certain forms of anarchism, and that anarchism should be discussed more by Quakers. Are there other historical connections between Quakerism and anarchists?

I'm not qualified to give a definitive answer, especially about the Diggers, but I do have some observations and book knowledge of early Quakers that may be helpful.

First, it's best to be very cautious before using a term like "anarchism" which became popular in the 19th century to categorize someone in the 17th century. The Wikipedia entry on anarchism records the first use of the term as being by Royalists during the English Civil War to describe people like the Levellers, Diggers and Quakers who they perceived as fomenting social unrest. (Actually, the Wikipedia entry says "fomenting social disorder", but I would deny that at least for the Quakers: they were not promoting disorder but rather a gospel order that merely seemed disorderly to those vested in the current arrangement.) There is little doubt that these groups (and remember that labels don't denote terribly precise categories and were all given as terms of derision by their opponents) radically opposed the current regime, but that doesn't mean that they were in principal opposed to any human government or outwardly coercive authority.

It is especially hard to tag the anarchist badge on the Quakers. Fox more than once accepted that the biblical understanding that the magistrate had a God-given role to protect the innocent and punish evil doers. See his letter quoted here.

Most of Fox's criticism of the government was that it had perverted its Godly duty: it punished the righteous (like the Quakers) and protected the guilty (like their tormenters). So he wasn't against good government; he was against bad government, and they understood the distinction. Quakers were well-known for their active role in court proceedings and lobbying in Parliament which I take to be a confirmation of the legitimacy of government as an institution, if not an endorsement of its current occupant or policies.

Furthermore, while George Fox and the early Friends might fairly be called anarchists in their critique of the organized churches of their day, Fox and Margaret Fell showed a very practical and realistic understanding of the propensity for even the Children of Light to run beyond their guide and to confuse their ego (or libido) with the will of God. This is why they set up the system of monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings for discipline that enabled the movement to survive and thrive during the persecutions of 1660-1689. These meetings did not use coercive force or violence, of course, but they did function as an effective church government to maintain unity and peace among its members. Not all Friends approved of this kind of church government and some found it to stifle movings of the Spirit. But it is hard for me to imagine the Quaker movement having survived in any recognizable form without this structure. (Of course, when the structure lost its juice and became calcified, it led to the divisions among Friends in the 19th century, a disaster from which we have not yet recovered.)

Finally, the enthusiasm with which the Quakers joined William Penn in establishing Pennsylvania is hard to square with any kind of principled anarchism inherent to the Quaker experience, at least in the early years. Penn's basic philosophy, which I take to be consistent with Quaker thinking in general, was that "governments depend on men rather than men upon governments, because if the men are good, the government cannot be bad; or if it is, they will cure it; but if men are bad, government will never be good." (See here for more detail on Penn's Holy Experiment.) Penn's Experiment lasted about 75 years -- at least, that's how long Quakers participated in the Assembly. Whether you consider the Experiment a failure or merely a limited success, there is probably a lot of material from that era that would support a more anarchist-leaning critique of the legitimacy government and of Christians ever participating in it.

What I know about the Diggers leads me to think of them as being animated more by a radically egalitarian or communist (to use other anachronistic terms) spirit, not as anarchists opposed to any human government per se. For example, their concerted action in digging up the common lands for food production seems to me to have required a good deal of organization and discipline. (Perhaps their premature dissolution indicates that they didn't have enough of either.)

All that said, I think that Quakers have always carried an anti-authoritarian gene in their DNA -- the affinity you're probably talking about -- and they probably share this gene with others who would characterize themselves as anarchists, or who would be so characterized by their enemies.

I understand that there is likely be a degree of congruence and overlap between Quaker understanding of the liberty afforded them by the gospel and what is generally known as Christian anarchism, taking care not to confuse anarchism with antinominalism (or anarchism with anarchy). A church whose governor is an invisible but living spirit may appear to be anarchic, but to the religious anarchist that's only an illusion. (I would like to concede here that a deeply loving community can live peacefully and responsibly without external coercive based solely upon the reason and strength of its participants and doesn't need the assistance of a Living God to bind it together, but I'm not sure I believe that it's true [not that very many religious communities have done better over the years]).

On an almost completely different note, writing this reminded me of John Sayles' great short story, The Anarchist's Convention, which I believe I may have referred to before in this blog. I first heard it read by Jerry Stiller on NPR's Selected Shorts more than 15 years ago and I'd love to hear it again.

The life in your God

What follows is my recollection of ministry I delivered yesterday at meeting, but it includes a report on ministry I gave a week earlier.

Last week, I was in Philadelphia on Friends-related business. As I was getting dressed on Saturday morning, I turned on the TV in the hotel because, from past experience, I knew there would be some old black-and-white classic movie of some sort on. Sure enough, there was an old Mae West comedy on. (I since have learned it was I'm no Angel). It was funny and sexy in Mae West's way, and I enjoyed especially the courtroom scene near the end. After the trial, very near the end of the movie, someone asks her, "What is it that keeps you so young? Is the the men in your life?"

Mae answers, "Honey, it isn't the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men."

Being in a long dry spiritual season, I was grateful for any bit of insight I could find, and at meeting later that morning I shared what I had seen. In the context of the meeting I was in and the query that guided our worship, I went on: What matters isn't really the Quakerism in your life, but the life in your Quakerism."

Almost immediately, I regreted putting it the way I did, and the reason why came up a few minutes later when another Friend, a noted Quaker historian and writer, admitted to sometimes making an idol out his Quakerism instead of worshiping the Living God. I am guilty of this same sin, and I appreciated his shedding light on it for me.

What I now wish I had said last week, and what I say to you today is this: It isn't the amount of God in your life that matters. It's the life in your God.

This way of putting it is particularly meaningful to me at the moment as I find myself more immersed than usual in secondary (and in some cases tertiary) sources about what it was that animated the Quaker movement in the 17th centrury and try to draw lessons on how it can animate us today. The irony, of course, is that everyone I'm reading and listening to is saying, "Don't rely on us; go to the Source yourself."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The groundhog stirs from his den

Yes, it's been too long. I've missed writing here, but just haven't felt as if I've had anyting to say. A symptom of resurgent depression, I'm sure. But I've just begun co-leading Quakerism 101 again, preparing for which has been reenergizing, and had a surprisingly enjoyable and productive weekend at the Friends Journal board meeting that has lifted me above water a little. It looks nice, and I hope I stay bouyant for a while. Here's a couple of things I've been working on.

Over the New Year holiday, I greatly enjoyed reading David Halberstam's The Children, about the college students in Nashville, Tennessee, who led the civil rights demonstrations in that city and so many of whom became the leadership cadre of SNCC and other parts of the movement. (The book also briefly mentions Marion and the late Nelson Fuson of Nashville Friends Meeting, whose son Dan provided me with the first books of my Quaker library back in 1977.) Halberstam was a reporter for the Nashville Tennesseen during the early 1960s and was a witness to much of what he writes about. The book does a masterful job of introducing the reader to each of the dozen or so young people and the parts they played in the Nashville Movement, followed by a fascinating "where are they now" section reporting on their lives today. I was struck that to a person, each of them say today that their time in Nashville and in the years immediately following were the high points of their lives, despite many accomplishments that have followed.

I am an avid student of the civil rights movement and was familiar with the outline and many of the details of their story, but I had not before found such a detailed sketch of James Lawson, the teacher of those students, whose workshops in creative non-violence taught them so well and gave them the tools to be the leaders they became. He comes across in Halberstam's book as a great, though modest, man whose contribution to history should not be forgotten.

So I was delighted to learn today that James Lawson is going to be the the Sunday night speaker at the FGC Gathering this summer. Here's the description from FGC's website:

James Lawson will speak to the theme courageously faithful, drawing from a lifetime of experience with nonviolent resistance. Lawson’s actions have been informed by deep conviction since before he served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, unwilling to claim the deferments for which he was eligible. He studied Gandhian theory first as a college student and then again in India in the mid-1950s. He has long been proponent of non-violent resistance to racism and injustice, and has been a mentor to activists throughout the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. called Lawson the “leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” For 25 years, Lawson served as pastor of the largest Methodist church in Los Angeles, retiring in 1999. He is currently a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University. He has extensively studied Quaker theology, and says that every time he teaches about nonviolence, he teaches about Quakerism.

I had hoped not to be able to attend the Gathering because I was going to go to Camp Fasola which meets at the same time, but the format changed this year to include only a two-full day session for adults, the rest of the time being focused on young singers. Good for them, but I'm now thinking that it may not be worth missing the Gathering for only two or three days of camp. . . . And now with the chance to hear James Lawson, that's a pretty good draw, too. So maybe I'll see you there. (No Sacred Harp workshop this year, alas. But I'm keeping my afternoons free.)

While I'm thinking of books, I'm currently devouring Larry Ingle's First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. It is the first biography of Fox that I've read -- are there others? -- and I'm captivated. It demystifies Fox on the one hand by painting him as the flesh-and-blood human being he undoubtedly was, but it also reinforces how extraordinary and unique he was -- "no man's copy" I believe Penn said about him. Ingle brings him alive so much that I've been thinking what a wonderful movie could be made about his life: He had a commanding physical and psychic presence that is hard to imagine. (I can imagine Bill Clinton playing him -- he has Fox's physical bulk and engaging charisma, though Fox was shorter. . . and differed in other ways, too.) Fox was constantly on the move (except when he was in prison) that would make lots of wonderfully dramatic scenes: his solitary climb up Pendle Hill and the vision he had there; his barefoot walk through the cold muck to denounce the bloody city of Lichfield; his nights spent in haystacks; his first visit to Swarthmoor Hall; etc. (Judi Dench playing Margaret Fell, perhaps?)

I also am appreciating getting a deeper feel for the religious, social, economic, and political tumult in which England was engulfed in the 17th century. I've often taught in Quakerism 101 that we should think of 17th century England as something like the 1960s in America as a time of tremendous upheaval and reordering of society, but it's becoming clearer to me that for all of what happend in the 1960s, the 1600s were even more dramatic. Perhaps the comparison should be to the entire 20th century. . . . At any rate, I highly recommend Ingle's book. It is readable, detailed, measured, and dramatic.