July 5, 2009. I am near Indianapolis at Lovely Wife’s brother’s family’s home, relaxing on a beautiful screened in back porch amidst green trees and grass and the songs of hundreds of birds and a few stray Fourth of July firecrackers. We arrived last evening from Blacksburg, Virginia and the Friends General Conference Gathering.
At the Gathering, mostly I sung. I co-led an almost-three house workshop, Singing from the Sacred Harp, six mornings (one day was shorter), led an hour of singing from Rise Up Singing immediately afterwards, and coordinated and participated in a two-hour Sacred Harp singing Sunday-Friday afternoons. It was like heaven must be like.
The workshop went extraordinarily well. It is the fifth time I’ve co-led it, the first time with Gerry. We worked well together and are both very satisfied with how it went.
We had high hopes when we got the preliminary roster showing 43 registered participants, half men, half women. A dozen were of high school or college age young Friends (including four from our own meeting), and six other singers who had taken the workshop before. This gave us a solid core of experienced singers to help along the newer singers, always an advantage in a singing school.
There were some additions and subtractions, but on first session on Sunday morning the class pretty closely resembled the preliminary roster. From the very first song, we knew we had a solid group of singers. It turned out that most of the younger Friends were already singers with high school or college choir experience and they picked up the rudiments of shape note singing easily. We could have dispensed with teaching the parts of new songs by the end of the Monday morning, though we continued to sing the parts separately most of the time until Thursday. We kept having new participants drop in throughout the week, which also contributed to the quality of the experience.
The workshop was complemented by a very strong afternoon singing. For the fourth year in a row, we were provided a beautiful place to sing outdoors – under a wide cantilevered overhang of the dining hall. It wasn’t a low-ceilinged pine church, but it was resonant and we didn't have to strain our voices to be heard. We ordered 30 chairs originally but had to add 15 more by Monday afternoon to accommodate everyone who wanted to sing. (When the second group of chairs was delivered, we found all 45 of them set up in one giant hallow square – just as the workers thought they had been instructed.) Thankfully, singing Friends from Madison, Wisconsin and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, brought additional books to share with the ones I brought from the Twin Cities; without those extra books to loan, we would have lost many singers.
Although we missed the high school singers from the workshop during the afternoon singing (they were obliged to be elsewhere), we did draw many of the college age Friends from the workshop, some other adult singers from the workshop, and most importantly other experienced singers who were able to start the week strong and keep the singing at a very high level of quality. I have been very pleased with the growth of the size and quality of the afternoon singings over the past four or five years, and this year was even better. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a large group also spontaneously showed up to worship and sing during the Wednesday afternoon sabbatical time when no organized activities were permitted. It was a pleasant coincidence.
Then came the extraordinary Thursday. In the workshop in the morning, we held a memorial lesson for Friends who had died or who were sick and shut-in and unable to be with us. This is a Sacred Harp tradition that we adapted to our Quaker setting by adding a lengthy time of silent, settled worship as well as reading the names and singing a song. It was, as it always is, a poignant and moving time.
We repeated this in the afternoon, with other names being said aloud and remembered by loved ones. Many of the names added in the afternoon were of people who had died prematurely, before what we would normally think of their time. I was led to lead the song Morning Sun (#436) which speaks to this tragic phenomenon:Youth, like the spring, will soon be gone,
Usually, this song is sung very quickly and energetically, and often with a strong feeling of black humor. But this time I led it very slowly and beat it with four beats to the measure, giving it a more stately feel. I also lead the song Poland (# 86) for the sick and shut-in:
God of my life, look gently down,
Behold the pains I feel,
But I am dumb before Thy throne,
Nor dare dispute Thy will.
I'm but a sojourner below,
As all my fathers were;
May I be well prepared to go
When I the summons hear.
But if my life be spared awhile,
Before my last remove,
Thy praise shall be my bus'ness still
And I'll declare thy love.
When these songs were done, we sat in traditional Quaker silent worship for a few minutes. While we were doing so, we listened to the background noise around us. Construction work across the street. Children squealing and laughing as they played down the walk. The easy laughter of Friends as they walked by, having a conversation. Sirens hurrying to the scene of an emergency.
Later that evening, I attended the Gathering’s third plenary program. The program began with a report from a Friend about a young man attending the Gathering who had fallen from a skateboard earlier that day and suffered a serious blow to his head; we had heard only that during our afternoon memorial lesson, and the speaker gave us his name and an update on his condition, which was guarded. He was not out of the woods and there was a strong sense of hopefulness for his recovery.
The speaker then began her program. It was the only one of the four plenary speakers during the week with whom I did not connect and so was relieved when she sat down at the end of her talk and was ready to leave.
But then a long line of Friends, most of whom I recognized as being part of the senior leadership of FGC and of the Gathering came to the stage and the general secretary stepped to the microphone. He then said words that must be among the most difficult he has or ever will have to say to others. He announced very simply and directly that Bonnie Tinker, a well-known and loved Friends from Portland, Oregon, had died that afternoon after having a collision with a vehicle while she was riding her bicycle.
There was an audible gasp from the assembly of a thousand or more. Then a lengthy time of stunned silence, punctuated by weeping and other sounds of emotion all around the hall. Lovely Wife took my hand and squeezed hard for some time. She had been a friend of Bonnie’s family for many years, and we both had worked briefly with her many years ago on an AFSC program. We knew her to be a remarkable woman of tremendous bravery, integrity, compassion, and promise. Her loss, in this sudden and unexpected way cut right through us.
After a time, additional announcements were made. All evening events cancelled except for a meeting for worship sponsored by Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual and Queer Concerns, a community of which Bonnie was a leading member. Workshops would reconvene in the morning and leaders would decide how to proceed. Persons trained in Compassionate Listening would convene in the front of the hall, etc.
L.W. and I just sat there for ten or fifteen minutes, trying to come to grips with what we had just heard. Then I said to her, “All I can think of is to sing.” So we got a box of books and walked to the place where we did our afternoon singing, joined by a few others who we found on the way. On the way, we learned that the sirens we had heard during the memorial lesson that afternoon were those called to help Bonnie. In the end, there was about a dozen of us, and we began singing (uncharacteristically) quietly, given the circumstances and time of night, which gave the music a whole different quality. We aren’t used to exercising any restraint when we sing, and gradually I believe we came more into full voice. We sang an hour or so before we felt free to stop and go home.
I don’t remember all the songs we sang that night, but I do remember reprising the song Linda had called in the afternoon when I said I wished I had chosen a more hopeful song than Morning Sun. She led Gainsville (#70t), verses 1, 5 and 6, and we sang it again that night.
At Thy feet we humbly bow;
Oh do not our suit disdain;
Shall we seek Thee, Lord, in vain?
Comfort those who weep and mourn;
Let the time of joy return;
Those who are cast down lift up,
Strong in faith, in love and hope.
Grant that all may seek and find
Thee a God supremely kind;
Heal the sick, the captive free,
Let us all rejoice in Thee.
It is a strange thing in some ways to be so involved with Sacred Harp singing at a Quaker gathering. After all, it is difficult to think of anything that could be more different than traditional Quaker worship. We are not quiet; we are not still; we make noise, joyful and otherwise; we weep without shame and we laugh heartily and often; we probably refer to more biblical stories, verses, and themes in one afternoon than most FGC Friends do in an entire year of weekly worship
But I do not see this as contradictory. When the reality of life and death breaks through to touch me personally, I feel as if I have only two possible responses. The first, and most natural, is silent acceptance and contemplation, letting the reality of it all sink in without the aid or hindrance of words. I seldom feel that there is anything I can say under such circumstances that help me or anyone else. So I respond by simply being there, sitting quietly and attentively.
The other response is to sing. Mark Twain once remarked that “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” I find the same is true of singing. Under urgent, desperate circumstances I find that singing – especially from the Sacred Harp but also from other sources – gives me an emotional relief and connection to others that I do not ordinarily find in silent worship. I certainly felt this last Thursday night under the porch at Deitz Dining Hall.
The next morning, we set aside the first hour of our workshop for open worship after the manner of Friends. One participant shared the conversation she had had with Bonnie at lunchtime a few hours before she was killed. Another shared that it was appropriate that the reason Bonnie had rented a bike to ride during the Gathering was to continue her training for a long ride down the West Coast she was planning to raise awareness and funds for gay and lesbian families. Another asked the young people to sing the song he had heard them singing around the table at breakfast that morning – Mear, (#49b), a versification of Psalm 47’s lamentation. We sang these verses:
Will God forever cast us off?
His wrath forever smoke
Against the people of his love,
His little chosen flock?
And still to heighten our distress,
Thy presence is withdrawn;
Thy wonted signs of pow'r and grace
Thy pow'r and grace are gone.
No prophet speaks to calm our grief,
But all in silence mourn;
Nor know the hour of our relief,
The hour of Thy return.
Near the end, the general secretary came into the room and said that a television news crew was on campus reporting the story of Bonnie’s death and wanted to film a workshop in action as background footage for the story. He asked if we would be willing to be filmed; he said it would be more compelling than showing a bunch of people sitting around a circle talking. We agreed and the TV people came in and did their thing as we sang our final songs. A few minutes later, another crew came by and we again were filmed. You can see one of the stories here. (Thanks to Jeanne for forwarding this link.)
I am grateful to God for so many, many things, but after this week I am thankful for nothing so much as the ability to feel gratitude and for a voice with which to express it.