Faith to Move Mountains

Last fall I was blessed to co-lead the Inquirers' Weekend at Pendle Hill with Emma Lapsansky.

We had a deeply engaged group of eight people on varying places in relation to Quakerism. One had attended four meetings for worship; one is an Episcopalian minister with ancestors who were Quaker, and so she wanted to better learn Quaker vocabulary and practice; one had been a member 30 years ago and eventually resigned, and now is considering joining a meeting again; and many of the others are regular attenders at meeting for worship and are considering next steps.

I had never facilitated a full weekend workshop before, though many afternoon or evening ones, plus many a Sunday morning class with children. And I've clerked 12 weekend-long Friends Journal board meetings in total over the last four years; those are somewhat similar, logistically anyway.

Anyway, it went very well. Emma was a fantastic co-leader, with her probing questions and knowledgeable answers in turn--the very model of a well-loved professor. I brought some different activities to mix it up a bit and make sure we took stretch breaks. We watched a couple of QuakerSpeak videos that spoke to the group's condition.

Afterwards, I reflected that this had been something of a "mountaintop" experience for me, but it wasn't a tiptop peak experience, either. I've had them before. I hope to have them again. The fact that I drove home every night to be with our sons while my wife was also away meant I didn't engage 24 hours a day, and that may have had an impact.

But the mountain didn't feel as high as when I was newer to Quakerism.

In considering that, I realized, that's partly because I am further up "the mountain" of spiritual experience in my daily life. I fall far short of Paul's injunction in Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing," yet I often remember to. And I've been practicing as a Quaker for 25 years now. It makes a difference.

It occurred to me that when Jesus spoke of having sufficient faith to move mountains, maybe it wasn't as literal as the words recorded in the Bible, at least as translated into English:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
- Matthew 17:20, New International Version

Perhaps this passage gives us a clue that we can move the mountaintop to us. We can have a daily spiritual practice that brings us closer to God, closer to the feeling we get on retreat at the top of a mountain, a peak experience literally and spiritually. I can't believe in prayer literally moving mountains, at least not with what I understand of how the universe works. I can totally see how we can move the spiritual mountain to us - and ourselves up it - so that we are there all the time.

During the weekend, Emma had reminded us the early Quakers believed humans can attain a place, as she said, "above Adam, and beyond falling." I felt we touched a little bit of that place in our weekend together.

Written November 2015, posted May 2016.

Just Step S'ways

I've been reading The Long Utopia, the latest and presumably last book in the Long Earth series by Stephen Baxter and the late Terry Pratchett.

It occurred to me that the Fall's "Just Step S'ways" from Hex Enduction Hour is the perfect soundtrack because of the lyrical parallel to the central conceit of the series.

The original album version of the song is here.

Click on the image for the Wikipedia entry on the album.


Three perspectives on the Friends peace testimony

1. Quakers are a religious society with a stance against participating in war
Quakers are a faith community. They have a collective position that participating in warfare is wrong and against the teachings of Christ Jesus. This is a clear and longstanding corporate witness growing out of Quakers' understanding of Christianity.

2. Individuals must still make their own choices
Even when the teachings are clear, each individual has to decide for himself or herself what is right action in a particular context.

Even though Quakers opposed all war, many individual men signed up for the US Civil War. Many of these volunteers were read out of meeting; and a goodly portion of them were accepted back into fellowship afterwards, especially if they expressed contrition. Even if the official witness of Friends was against the war, Friends supported an end to enslavement, and as a result many could understand why an individual might choose to sign up, even if it was officially outside the Quaker testimony.

Later, many young Quaker men even signed up for World War I, to the consternation of many elders, including Rufus Jones. The American Friends Service Committee was founded in 1917 in part to provide young Quaker men with meaningful service opportunities outside fighting in the military. One option was the Friends Ambulance Corps.

3. An individual may find a different answer than society at large, and need not have all the answers for everyone
Today, most people think of Quakers as not just refraining from serving in the military themselves, but also as people who act to stop war before it begins. This is a relatively modern approach.

Many Quakers involved in peace work have analyzed past wars, diplomacy, and popular movements to understand strategies and tactics to prevent war in the future. There are too many examples to name here, so I'll list just one information resource: Quaker George Lakey led the creation of Swarthmore College's Global Nonviolent Action Database, where you can learn more about popular nonviolent movements. (Side note: And there can be practical benefits to a peaceful approach: According to Waging Nonviolence, in researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent struggles were successful significantly more often (56%) than violent ones (26%). See their book Why Civil Resistance Works.)

In some cases, Quakers have identified the failure by "good actors" to act in a timely way to prevent demagogues and dictators from rising to power. Once those moments are past and it's "too late," war may seem inevitable in hindsight. For example, theologian Walter Wink faulted the churches in Germany for not speaking out against Hitler and the Nazi putschists in the early 1930s. For another, peace activist David Hartsough and five colleagues were arrested in Kosovo in 1998 while there to support the mass student nonviolent movement against the Serbian dictatorship. Despite the pleas of the students, Hartsough, and others, the nonviolent resistance was not supported by other Western nations and so was crushed, leading to genocide, internecine warfare, and US and NATO bombardments when it was "too late" to support the movement.

So one may intellectually concede that wars of international aggression appear to have no solution besides war -- when they reach that point. They are not inevitable, however, if people of good will and conscience resist before that point.

Finally, even when one or more nations begin warfare, people of good will and conscience have a choice. They can refuse to participate, no matter how just the cause may appear, or seem to appear, in order not to damage their own spiritual well-being. Such a person can know in her or his heart that this is the right action for him or her. Even when the larger societal answer seems to point to war as the answer, the still small voice can still tell that individual, "War is not the answer." And if everyone lived that way and followed that voice, the world would be a different and better place.


WPRB-FM's 75th anniversary website

I'm ridiculously happy to have been chosen as the photographic subject for the Facebook page announcement that WPRB-Stereo 103.3 FM has launched www.wprbhistory.org in this, its 75th anniversary year.

WPRB means a lot to me. It particularly meant a lot to me from fall 1980 to fall 1989, when I either listened to the station pretty much every day or got to be a DJ on it.

A WPRB-themed exhibit will open at Princeton University's Mudd Library this fall.

We're thrilled to introduce a new WPRB History website for DJs, listeners, and college radio historians! Click through...

Posted by WPRB 103.3 FM on Thursday, May 28, 2015

In the words of then-Fall guitarist Craig Scanlon, in a station ID for WPRB in the early 1980s, "Enjoy!"


GFox quotable quote

From the Journal of George Fox, pg. 96:

"So dear Friends live all in the peaceable Truth and in the love of it, serving the Lord in newness of life, for glorious things and precious truths have been manifested among you plentifully, and unto you the riches of the kingdom have been handed."


Notes from the 2014 Cary Lecture by William Graustein

I attended the 2014 Stephen Cary Lecture at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center in Wallingford, Penna., in April. The following are my notes, pretty much unedited.

A sound recording of the lecture is here.

Bill Graustein – Stephen Cary Lecture, 4/7/2014

“Prophets and Nonprofits: Tending Quaker Roots in Secular Soil”

How do scriptural referents (parables, prophets) appear in the inward experience of the Light?

He went to a high-church Episcopal boarding school; there was some tension around religion with one of his parents. After he graduated he was struck upon meeting a Quaker, who talked easily and simply of her faith. She invited him to meeting for worship in Purchase, NY. When they all shook hands at the close of meeting, he felt very welcomed. Later, he reflected that this was indeed a radical sign of welcome.

Parable of the sower: had heard it back in school, but it came alive for him one time stopping by a farm field one winter evening in December. He realized sowing seeds then would not result in anything; but sowing them in the same location four months later would. So he saw the parable could be about time as well as physical (or spiritual) location.

His father had founded a company back in the late 1940s. Although it didn’t do well, he started a foundation, too, (later?) named after his late brother, Bill’s uncle. The company was sold much later, for about four times what they thought it would, so they had a lot of money. Holy sh**! He was in the 1%.

They agreed to start a family foundation with his mother’s share. Bill consulted people for guidance. As a geophysicist, he expected data and analysis. Instead, he heard stories and narratives. Meanwhile, his mother’s withdrawn stance was diagnosed as paranoia.

His father, son of an uneducated dairyman, had gone to Harvard, class of 1902. He was friends with Amos Wilson, (one of?) the only African American at Harvard then. He stayed friends with Amos throughout his life, as they found a pile of correspondence from Amos in his dad’s papers. Bill realized racial justice was important to his father [and so could be appropriate for the foundation’s work].

Bill attended a retreat on “emerging ministries” that he heard about at a ministry and worship committee meeting.  He didn’t feel emerging or like a minister, but went anyway. Found that people there had the same story in different forms: many had suffered some hurt, faced facts, chose life, got moving, and now wanted to figure out how to give back.

He organize a planning meeting with 20 people in New Haven. What’s your vision for the future, and what’s getting in your way? He found two major themes:

  1. Yearning to look outside the bounds of their own organizations to work together for something greater;
  2. Seeking support to be more fully alive in community. The work wasn’t necessarily supportive.
He realized he was hearing things that Friends address, for example, listening non-judgmentally.

He founded an organization called the Community Leadership Program. It encouraged storytelling. Then he introduced the clearness process to them. After the first year, they did an evaluation. They learned people of color held back on issues of race, because the two initial leaders were both white. In the second year they brought in a third facilitator who is a woman of color. This helped.

Bill also brought in Donald Davis, who uses the power of storytelling.

Niyonu Spann is now working with him to help transfer the skills and talents of holding space, consciously creating. They have founded an organizaton on co-creation; she is doing most of the day to day work.

He felt his work was difficult, yet there was vitality in failing, and it was rewarding work. The work pulled him away from his meeting, though.

He told the story of a 57-year-old woman on Metro North, who was told not to sit down next to a white man because he didn’t want her black skin touching him. She was shocked, paralyzed, and troubled that no one else spoke up. There was only one other person of color in the car at the time.  Bill was in meeting for worship two days later and thought, “The composition in this room looks like that Metro North car.”

He told the story of a man from a low-income background whose father had left the family. Once he was on a commuter train, where he saw an African American man in a suit and tie and sharp as can be. He resolved to be like this older man. Now he has founded a couple of nonprofits in New Haven to help young men in circumstances he had grown up in. He chanced to meet his father once, in Florida; but he suffered from mental illness, and could not truly see his son. Yet this was hard, as his whole life the younger man had tried to be a man his father could be proud of. Bill could relate because his own mother could not really see him, either.

Quoted Cornel West’s take on Ephesians: “love the people.” Most radical thing Bill ever did was listen.

People in the world outside Quakers are longing to be heard, to be affirmed. Quakers have something to offer. Many Quakers want to “get outside the Quaker bubble,” as the December issue of Friends Journal said.

Renewal : Power flows from the practice of Friends for him. What do we have to offer the world as patterns and examples?

He concluded, “To listen to our neighbors as if they were prophets is a necessary step toward justice.”


Q (J): Sometimes white people want people of color to tell their stories at meetings. But that often doesn’t work well.
A: Yes, there’s an imbalance of power/privilege. Start with questions that are not about issues: “Who’s someone you admire who you wish the others here could know?” (Otherwise it puts the less-privileged person at risk.)

Q: What’s a success and a failure you’ve had?
A: CLP is resulting in collaborations because people see commonality. Personal friendships are growing across difference. Mistake was not getting on the ball sooner. We often make mistakes in CLP and then say, “Oh, okay, what can we learn?” And the biggest mistakes are the ones I haven’t learned anything from yet.

Q (LD): I’m part of a small group of white people who meet to talk about racism. It’s a spiritual practice. One person said, “I used to be able to forget about racism. Now, not a single day goes by when I don’t think about it.” This is important work you’re doing. Can you do this work with national Quaker organizations?
A: (bows = yes) Q (O): Gravest sin is not to recognize the divine in others. My prayer is that we acknowledge the brokenheartedness in not seeing one another.
A: We all need refuge at times. And other times we nee to step out of refuge and into action.

Q (V): RSOF is either at a breaking point or a breakthrough point. How might we step into and through the difficult bits?
A: 1) Boundary between RSOF and outside is more permeable today. Revitalization can come from without as well as within. Patterns of exclusion can be worked on. 2) How do we get people the “psychic Wheaties” to enable them to do the hard work? Sometimes, we nee to ask for help—from elders, accountability partners. Celebrate small steps.

Q (S): Say more about the distance with your monthly meeting.
A: I did not feel the meeting was letting me down, more that I was busy, stuck in “facilitators mind” when at meeting for worship, and didn’t know how to invite people along with me. Feel closer to my meeting again, serving on a committee again.

Q: Point is to go forth, not to build meetings. Beatitudes turn everything upside down.
Q (A): I affirm that you choose to do this work. You could choose not to and still have a foundation and have people around you say you’re doing good work. This, this is important work. [Didn’t write much in the way of notes, because I responded to her emotion with my own deep emotion welling up. Definitely felt like a moment of Presence.]… Is there anything that you get angry about in this work? A: I don’t do anger well, but I’m kind of starting to get worked up: Why aren’t more of us doing this work in our culture? There, did I do better [in expressing anger]? [Niyonu shakes head, everyone says “No!” and we all burst out laughing together. Together!!]