Class Meeting for Business

This was the 3rd grade newsletter for my son's class recently.

Some of you have heard the terms “Class Meeting” or “Meeting for Business” being used to describe meetings wherein the class discusses issues. We would like to use today’s newsletter to detail what these Meetings for Business look like.

When a student has a conflict with another student (or a group of students), the initial student first tries to solve the problem by being assertive. We have given the students explicit language and tools to try, e.g., “I feel (feeling) when you (specific action). I want you to stop (or other desired behavior).” With this language, the students learn that each of them has a responsibility to solve their problems.

However, sometimes the problems are more complex or difficult to resolve. In this situation, after the initial student has put forth significant effort, he/she tells the other parties involved, “I don’t think we can solve this problem on our own. I’m going to write it down in the Class Meeting Notebook.”

We don’t introduce the Class Meeting Notebook until we have developed a safe classroom environment, in which students have developed a strong sense of trust and support with one another. Our roles as teachers, during the Meeting for Business, are to make sure the discussion stays on topic, remains productive, and that no one ever feels like he/she is being attacked. We achieve this by asking thought-provoking questions, which help students find their own solutions to various problems. We also facilitate the discussion by making sure only one student speaks at a time, and providing the opportunity for all voices to be heard.

Then, during our next Meeting for Business, with the teachers guiding the conversation, the child brings the issue to the class. First we hear from all parties involved, followed by those who witnessed the event, and finally other students can share their thoughts, following the Quaker idea that the collective wisdom is greater than the individual. We hear from both the alleged “victim” and “perpetrator”, but by the end of the discussion, it comes to light that we all share responsibility for our actions during any given conflict.

The purposes of our Meetings are as follows:
  • The students learn how to resolve their conflicts independently.
  • They listen to one another, while controlling their behavior.
  • They grow to be appreciative of one another’s perspectives (learn to empathize).
  • They learn how to live and work together as a community.
We hope this clarifies our Meetings for Business for you. If you should have any more questions, please email your teacher.

-- Rich, Amabelle & Sarah

I'm impressed with the ways in which the SF Friends School tries to incorporate vital Friends practices into the classroom.


Hardly Strictly Doc Watson

Last weekend was the 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the free, three-day extravaganza in Golden Gate Park (www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com).

For a couple of years now, Robin has held a Sunday morning meeting for worship on the grounds of the festival. However, as clerk of the meeting, I felt called to stay and clerk worship at the meetinghouse. (It was an especially small meeting last week, as many women from our meeting were participating in a retreat at the Sierra Friends Center, but that's another story.)

I think we've been going to the bluegrass festival since the 3rd year, but I'm not sure. We didn't go to the festival on Saturday this year, the first time in a while. This year's festival felt like it should have been called "Hardly Bluegrass," as so many of the acts were rock musicians, most of them perfectly fine musicians with stellar name recognition, but hardly folk let alone bluegrass.

We stayed at the "Banjo Stage" and heard the old-timers and classic players, like Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, and Doc Watson, and caught the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band at another stage on the way out. (They were good, with players ranging from 9 and up!)

Here's (most of) what 87-year-old Doc Watson and David Holt played:
- Downtown
- (instrumental fiddle tune)
- Little Sadie
- Nine Pound Hammer (Roll On Buddy)
- Freight Train
- Black Mountain Rag
- Wabash Cannonball
- Deep River Blues
- Little Log Cabin in the Lane
- The Train That Carried My Girl from Town
- T for Texas
- I Am a Pilgrim and a Stranger
- Working Man Blues
- Keep on the Sunny Side

He ended with a blues tune that included the lines, "I've got the blues, and I can't waste any time." A search of those lyrics doesn't turn up any obviously relevant titles, so I'm not sure what that song was.

Anyway, it will be quite something if Doc can make it back next year at age 88!


It is from self-absorption we must be saved

A couple of years ago I read If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. I wrote out a passage I liked at that time, and it's been sitting on my dresser since then. So it's time to put it out there.

This is from page 151; copyright 2003 (I think) by the authors; emphasis added:
Salvation comes with believing God loves you unconditionally. It is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodnewss. Only when we repent of this self-absorption and focus on God’s love can this love alter us. Then and only then can God transform hearts darkened by sin and soften hearts hardened by self-righteousness.

It is from this self-absorption that we must be saved. Often, when I speak of my belief in the salvation of every person, someone will object that without the threat of hell, people would sin wantonly. They consider the possibility of eternal punishment as the only deterrent to human selfishness. Unfortunately, if this is true, even serving God and loving our neighbor become acts of selfishness. Self-absorbed choices, by their very nature, separate us from God and from others.

I learned this from Jesus.
I read Gulley's most recent book, If the Church Were Christian, a few months ago, and noted several sections for me to come back to later, so maybe you can look forward to my thoughts on that in about three or four years. :)


Phone call with an 11 year old

(This is a more or less verbatim transcript of a phone call I had about eight months ago. H. was then 11 years old.)


H: What happened?

C: You need to say hello first.

H: Oh. Hello. This is H.

C: Hi H., it's Daddy. I just need you to ask Mommy about whether or not I need to put a cover on the apple crisp in the oven.

H: Ok, I'll ask her. Bye.

C: No! Don't hang up! I need you to tell me her answer.

H: Oh, ok. [asks Robin about the cover]

H: No, you don't.

C: Ok, thanks.

H: Bye!

C: Bye.


20 years of Quaker meetings

Today at meeting for worship I realized this week marks 20 years since I attended my first meeting, at 15th Street Meeting in Manhattan. It was either 9/16 or 9/23/1990.

I went because I didn't like the buildup of US military forces in Saudi Arabia, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Quakers were speaking out against it, so I thought I'd check it out.

Months before, a friend of mine from where I worked, a major publishing house, had encouraged me to attend. She thought I would like it.

I found the meeting incredibly powerful, at a gut and heart level. It was just so profound to see this group of people sit in silence together, in the middle of the biggest US city.

At the rise of meeting, I introduced myself, and gave credit to my friend for encouraging me to attend.

She came up to me afterwards and said, "Chris, I don't think anyone here even knows me! I attend the meeting in Flushing, Queens. I just happened to come here today because we were running late and didn't have time to get out there."

Ah, synchronicity. It's been a consistent theme in my experience of Quakerism.

For those with ears to hear, let them hear.


Spring and summer reading

For the last many months, I’ve largely taken a break from reading and writing blogs. It’s been a busy season at work and at meeting, so I’ve needed to relax in ways other than through screentime. Instead, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time reading books. Oh, and doing crossword puzzles.

Thank goodness--and our tax system--for the Peninsula Library System, my source of several of these books.

Religion and faith:

Karen Armstrong, The case for God

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith

Phillip Gulley, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: the Search for the Science of Spirituality

Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists

Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity

Ben Pink Dandelion, Celebrating the Quaker Way

Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

Kristin Swenson, Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time

Noteworthy Pendle Hill Pamphlets (PHPs):

  • Jack Kirk, Kindling a Life of Concern: Spirit-Led Quaker Action (PHP 404)
  • Tom Head, Envisioning a Moral Economy (PHP 405)
  • William Taber, The Mind of Christ: Bill Taber on Meeting for Business (PHP 406)


Orson Scott Card, Prentice Alvin etc. - all 5 books in the Alvin Maker series

Michael Chabon, Summerland

Jeanne DuPrau, The Prophet of Yonwood

Madeleine L'Engle, Many waters

Tamora Pierce, Circle of Magic quartet; Circle Opens quartet; The Will of the Empress; Trickster’s Choice; Trickster’s Queen; Melting Stones (12 books all together by her)

Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines


Robert Frank, The Economic Naturalist’s Field Guide: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times (I just finished this and really liked it)

David Owen, The Green Metropolis: why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability (I really liked this one, too; a little repetitive but important content)

John Perkins, The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth about Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World

Will Shortz, Will Shortz's Greatest Hits: 150 NY Times Crossword Puzzles Picked by the Puzzlemaster (as mentioned, one of the real reasons I haven't been blogging lately!)

Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes

Finally, there's this one, in which a British music journalist obsessively follows my favorite group, The Fall, so I don't have to:
Dave Simpson, The Fallen: Life in and out of Britain's Most Insane Group

Books on the shelf I’ve yet to read:

  • Enlivened by The Mystery: Quakers and God, edited by Kathy Hyzy (published by Western Friend)
  • Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, edited by Angelina Conti, Cara Curtis, Wess Daniels, John Epur Lomuria, Emma Condori Mamani, Harriet Hart, Sarah Katreen Hoggett, Evelyn Jadin, Katrina MacQuail, Rachel Anne Miller
  • Margery Post Abbott, To Be Broken and Tender
  • Carole Dean Spencer, Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism
  • Robert T. Wright, The Evolution of God
  • The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kanter, Allison Fine, and Randi Zuckerberg

...and many more!


SF Meeting's new Fund for Leadings

In July 2010, San Francisco Monthly Meeting approved the following guidelines for our new Fund for Leadings. I share them here because I think this is an exciting effort that Quaker meetings and even other congregations should know about. They were drafted by an ad hoc budget committee, and edited by me following two periods of discernment at monthly meeting for business.

San Francisco Friends Meeting
Fund for Leadings

In May 2010, San Francisco Friends Meeting created a Fund for Leadings (Minute 2010-05-09). The purpose of this fund is to encourage Friends who feel “a sense of being called by God to undertake a specific course of action” to pursue their leadings. We hope members and regular attenders will feel inspired to apply for ministry support money to help manifest spiritual leadings. Friends will submit a written request and funds will be approved by the meeting for business to ensure fairness and transparency.

The meeting approved creating the Fund for Leadings with $30,000 from the General Fund. In First month 2011, the meeting will review and evaluate this program and the fund. Based on this review, the meeting would decide to continue the fund, apply additional funding, or lay down the fund. If the funds are not expended at that time, Friends will review the Fund again later.

We are excited this financial resource is being put to use for good works, spiritual leadings, and ministry as an expression of witness to our faith and practice as Friends. We look forward to education and conversation around the topic of our leadings in the coming months.

Guidelines for Requests for Support from the Fund

The intention of the Fund for Leadings is to support members and regular attenders of the San Francisco Friends meeting to pursue a new leading or a new phase of an existing leading, which would otherwise not be possible without corporate discernment and financial support. Ideally the Fund for Leadings would assist an individual (rather than an organization) who does not have access to or support from other funding sources.

Support from the Fund for Leadings will help Friends bring their ministry into action. Our hope is that the Fund for Leadings will stimulate dialogue and discernment of how Spirit is moving us to act in the world. From this deep listening, we encourage Friends to step forward, seek support, and consider submission of a proposal. All requests will be considered with the following guidelines in mind. To nurture this process, Ministry & Oversight will offer a series of workshops on discerning leadings and ideas for how to bring a leading into acts of ministry in the world. (Note: Funding is already available for scholarships and travel assistance to Quaker gatherings and conferences through the meeting’s Gatherings Fund.)

Clarification on “Leadings”

In Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith & Practice, a “Leading” is defined (p. 135) as “a sense of being called by God to undertake a specific course of action. A Friend may submit a leading to the Meeting for testing by corporate wisdom. A leading often arises from a concern.” (A “concern” is defined as “a quickening sense of the need to do something about a situation or issue in response to what is felt to be a direct intimation of God’s will.”)

It is Friends practice to test a leading through prayerful individual and corporate discernment. (Discernment is “the process of seeking and discovering that which is deeply true.”) Friends seeking support through the Fund for Leadings should request a “Clearness Committee” from Ministry & Oversight for further discernment of their leadings. The report from the clearness committee should be included in the written request for support.


Unexpected delight - Interview with Ben Pink Dandelion

I am compiling a list of recent books I've read, and in the process googled Ben Pink Dandelion's new, very small book Celebrating the Quaker Way. He calls it a Quaker devotional, and it's a lovely little book.

The search results turned up an interview with him from 2008, in the UK Church Times. Here's a quote I liked:
I pray that other people will feel God in their life, and I often pray for people who are suffering from illness or who are having a difficult time financially. I pray that they will be wrapped in God’s love — not so much about fixing the problem. Life should be praying.
Here's a link to the full article:


It's worth reading. So is the book! I ordered my copy from Quaker Books.


SF Friends School Patch

This patch was designed by middle-school students at San Francisco Friends School. I quite like it.
The school also has enormous banners with one of each of these words hanging in the 3rd floor gym. It's quite something to see.

(This is a bit of an experiment. If you're seeing this on Facebook and it doesn't show an image, you can go to the original blog at http://chrismsf.blogspot.com.)


State of San Francisco Friends Meeting

Here is the annual "state of the meeting report" for 2010, as approved today by San Francisco Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

State of the Meeting Report 2010:
San Francisco Monthly Meeting

Approved at monthly meeting for business, 5/9/2010

Meeting for Worship

The weekly meeting for worship seems grounded and full as we wait upon the Holy Spirit. Vocal ministry varies widely in quantity, and yet the quality seems generally at a good level. One recent week we had no vocal ministry and a week or two later we had ten different pieces of vocal ministry.

The Tuesday evening meeting is small but centered; it recently moved to Wednesday evenings, to be closer to midweek.

We continue to hold an extended meeting for worship from 9:30 to noon on the fifth Sundays of a month. The longer times often lead to a greater depth of worship for Friends.

Meeting for Business

Visitors have remarked that our meeting for business seems grounded and spiritual. In a major piece of business, we took several months to discern at some length about a service project – opening a neighborhood food pantry at the meetinghouse. The time seemed right, given the recession and the increased need, and unity was reached in March. At our first pantry in April, a lot of outreach was done in the neighborhood, and we served more than our goal of 50 households the very first time. We are engaging with the SF Friends School community in finding volunteers; other people have found us through our volunteer management signup page on the internet.

A new feature at business meeting in the past year has been brief reports from ministers among us. These have uplifted us as we realize the depth and breadth of ministry among the members of our meeting, ranging from an art gallery internship program for at-risk teens, to republishing classic Quaker works, to convening the Quaker study and Bible study groups at our meeting for 20 years.


We welcomed Rolene Walker home from her Walk with Earth. It was wonderful to have her back among us, as we learned more about the lessons and learnings she gained from her time between California and Chile. Meanwhile, Rolene likes to remind us that people who have leadings to go out into the world also need people to stay home to “tend the fires.”

Several Friends have been following a leading to resist the payment of taxes to fund wars. Two of our members have spent many weekends traveling to other meetings in College Park Quarterly Meeting to raise awareness of this issue. A distant member visited and spoke of his own path, including a federal lawsuit he has filed. A minute was approved by the meeting that recognized the variety of ways people have followed this leading, and affirmed our support for this witness.

Our vigil for peace outside the federal office building continues into its ninth year. Fortunately, we have support from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Episcopals, Buddhists, and many others, as our meeting’s presence at the vigil is often fairly small.

Comings and Goings

Our large urban meeting is blessed with many visitors, and many newcomers, and many people who move on to other places or other activities. Efforts to welcome newcomers a few years ago have paid off in the last year as several new members joined the meeting. We still have to remind ourselves from time to time to welcome newcomers, and repeat visitors, and help them feel included. We strive to be a teaching meeting, whereby people who sojourn with us for a spell may feel refreshed or inspired or willing to experiment. We have had a number of convincements in the past year.

Other long-time members have moved away, or had their memberships transferred, and we are glad to support them in their new meetings.


Our community truly feels intergenerational. We have a lively group of young children at the meeting these days, and the children’s religious education committee strives to serve children at the nursery, young elementary, and older elementary levels. It is our hope to continue to engage the older children as they mature; we will need help to do that. We are blessed to have a dedicated and talented childcare worker who grew up in La Jolla Meeting.

Finances and Building

We dealt with a budget deficit in 2009, as donations were down significantly. Our building continues to receive significant use, through tenants AFSC and Institute for Public Accuracy, and through building rentals by community groups. Our building manager has kept the usage of the building high even with the recession, and has managed several improvement projects in the past year.

As part of an ongoing effort, the Treasurer identified a baseline of funds needed for operation of the meeting and for prudent building reserves. An ad hoc committee is looking at possible uses for the funds in excess of that baseline. We hope to examine this prayerfully in the coming months.

The possibility of renovating our kitchen remains a topic of discussion. In the past year an ad hoc subcommittee wrote queries for all to consider, and convened a worship sharing session. In the coming year we will discern what our calling, if any, might be around improving the kitchen.


Our sense of community is sustained by our fellowship hour; study groups; the annual meeting retreat; and other activities, such as Friendly 8’s potluck groups. Many San Francisco Friends participate in the wider world of Friends, often in leadership roles, including through organizations such as Quarterly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Friends General Conference, Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender and Queer Concerns, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Quakers Uniting In Publications, AFSC, and Alternatives to Violence Project (not officially Quaker but started by Friends).

We are not at all perfect, but we are usually able to communicate clearly with one another when our feelings are hurt or our expectations are not met. This is helpful in creating a sense of trust, and giving us a glimpse of the Beloved Community among us.


The spiritual state of San Francisco Monthly Meeting appears to be healthy and vibrant. We pray for the Spirit’s continued blessing and guidance, that it may truly be so and that it may remain so.

Respectfully submitted,

Chris Mohr, Clerk


Three good books and a query: Is it SPIJE not SPICE?

I've recently read three interesting books in a row:
  1. A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren

  2. If the Church Were Christian, Phillip Gulley

  3. The Case for God, Karen Armstrong
I'd recommend reading all three of them, at least for my Quaker friends and anyone who identifies as "spiritual but not religious." All three authors are doing their best to come up with or describe religion that encompasses the spirituality of compassion, love, and grace as foremost.

The McLaren and Gulley books are about praxis, how to form a new kind of church that would actually embody the values of Jesus, instead of just talking about him. Armstrong's is about history—understanding how we got "here," a world where many people identify religion with fundamentalism and dismiss it altogether, and where many others identify their religious truth as the only true truth and dismiss everyone else.

I hope to take time to write more, especially about the praxis books. However, my nightstand now has on it Diana Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity, and it's beckoning to me, more than three months after Robin M. gave it to me. (In between the food pantry debut, a baseball game, Quaker Heritage Day tomorrow, and meeting for business on Sunday, it's simply going to have to wait just a little bit longer for my attention.)

One brief note from Gulley's book: He lists the desirable testimonies of a congregation as being simplicity, peace, integrity, justice, and equality—which you can abbreviate as SPIJE. I like this as an alternative to the mnemonic of "the" Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, which are an extension of something Howard Brinton originally synthesized in Quakers for 300 Years. (Here's an old post I wrote in 2006 about doing a workshop on the "SPICES" testimonies—the extra S is for Stewardship.)


News: Food Pantry and an Op Ed in the Merc

First news item: The neighborhood food pantry starts this Saturday, 4/10/2010, at the San Francisco Friends Meetinghouse, 65 9th Street, between Mission & Market Streets, San Francisco. Volunteers will arrive at 11 to sort food and set it on tables in a farmers market style. This is the SF Food Bank's preferred form of distribution, so that participants can select the items they want rather than take whatever is in a bag or a box. Distribution begins at 12:30 and is open to the first 50 people who arrive.

Second news item: The 4/8/2010 issue of the San Jose Mercury News is carrying an op ed piece I wrote about a housing issue here in the SF Bay Area -- the issue being the lack thereof. Despite the economic downturn, there is a real need for more affordable homes, especially for working families.

One newly built development, Trestle Glen at the Colma BART station, had 1,500 applicants for 119 affordable apartments. (Trestle Glen's grand opening will be a featured event during Affordable Housing Week in San Mateo County, May 8-15.)

Here is the link to the Mercury News article: Court ruling points up Bay Area's housing challenge


Neighborhood Food Pantry Coming to the Meetinghouse

Today San Francisco Monthly Meeting came to unity to create a neighborhood food pantry at the meetinghouse for the San Francisco Food Bank. The process officially began in November, when the proposal was first made to business meeting. The second month, we found unity to apply to the Food Bank to become a site, but not to actually be a site. They said yes, told us what day and time it would be, and then we had more questions.

So last month we invited a Food Bank staffer to be on hand to answer questions -- lots of questions -- and then we discussed logistics among ourselves for a while after she left. After that, I was kind of exhausted. I had hoped we might actually get to discerning about whether this was a leading or not. Well, discernment goes better if you have more energy, and you don't begin when you're already exhausted, so it was wisely suggested we had done enough that day.

As meeting clerk, I tried to reduce this month's agenda to a minimum to keep our energy level high enough for the work we had to do, but of course other things crept onto it nonetheless.

Still, we got through the other business fairly efficiently, and so came time for the food pantry discernment.

I laid out the history of this proposal, as well as the activities that had preceded it.

(I meant to mention that a person in our meeting had, as a staffer for the AFSC at the time, founded the lovely and successful Heart of the City Farmers Market in the low-income Tenderloin neighborhood, but I forgot. Robin and I used to shop there often when we lived nearby. The same person went on to found a regional food co-op called SHARE, and our meeting hosted one site for the co-op. Other people organized monthly dinners at a homeless shelter for several years in the 90s. So there is a long history of food activism in our meeting.)

I laid out the opportunities and the challenges, which had all been raised in the previous few business meetings.

I then read a section from Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice:
The Meeting’s work of discernment is a corporate search. The Clerk does not direct the communication toward certain predetermined goals, but keeps dialogue open, promoting free and full exploration of the matter under consideration, while fostering a sense of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Clerk is responsible for discerning and stating the sense of the Meeting and presenting a minute when unity has been reached.Members of the Meeting may sometimes assist the Clerk in this. If a member believes that the Clerk has incorrectly discerned the sense of the Meeting, it is appropriate to speak up. Similarly, someone may propose that unity actually has been reached and suggest that a minute should be recorded.
I then asked Friends to settle into worship, to clerk ourselves, and to speak from the silence as led without waiting to be recognized, which is otherwise our usual practice.

The first period of silence was extremely long for me. What would be said? Eventually a Friend spoke, an elder of the meeting (though he's not that old!), to say he felt it is a calling of the Spirit to our meeting. He went on to list a number of practical and logistical concerns our Property and Finance Committee had identified, but they were about implementation, not any stops for having the food pantry itself.

The discussion continued along similar lines in quite a deep way, with many Friends rising to speak. Eventually, as I was about to suggest we had found unity, another Friend did it for me, just as Faith and Practice said could be done. So that felt like a good sign to me -- that I was sensing the same things others were.

One thing I appreciated was that what I had to say as an individual had been said, so there was no need for me to rise, step to the side of the clerks' table, and speak as an individual. (Yay, I clerked myself!)

I asked if Friends had a sense of unity, and there was assent in the form of nods and a few spoken yeses.

Having had numerous conversations about this topic with people in the meeting in the last month, I had already had a sense of unity emerging before this business meeting. So my last bit of preparation had been to compose a draft minute for testing if it seemed appropriate.

I read the draft, and indeed, it was pretty close to what the meeting approved, with a few substantive things added about the charge to the committee organizing the food pantry.

I asked if Friends approved the minute as amended, and they said yes.

A Friend who is visiting San Francisco from Australia for the year said, "May I do a little dance?" She then stood up, raised her hands, and did a little circle dance in place. It was in keeping with the joyous spirit of the moment.

There is undoubtedly a lot of work to do, and a lot of volunteers to recruit. But I think with God's help, and each other's, we can do it.

Our minute ended with a sentence to the effect of: "Above all, we pray for the Spirit's guidance in helping us faithfully maintain this work." May it be so.


Fingerprints of spiritual experience

Once when I was teenager, I recall thinking about religion, and realizing I was definitely agnostic if not atheist. After all, I was good at science, and especially interested in physics and astronomy. (In fact, I went on to major in physics in college.) The old images in paintings of an old man in the sky didn’t make sense to me as a true image of whatever the divine might be.

At the same time, I had the insight that religious experience is real — after all, it has been happening to humans consistently for thousands of years. So I decided that I believed in religious experience, even if I didn’t believe in religion per se.

Fast forward many years, and now I consider myself a Christian and a Quaker, though not particularly orthodox (nor Orthodox, in the Quaker sense) in my beliefs. Nonetheless, I have a deep and abiding faith and trust that there is a deeper layer of meaning and value to the universe, to all of creation. The types, figures, and forms of the Christian narrative hold great meaning for me, and when I spend time with them, they help me find a real spiritual depth within myself, and to observe and appreciate a similar depth outside of me as well.

As a side effect of my practice of both science and religion, I have a fondness for books on the science of spirituality. The advent of brain scanners has enabled researchers to study what is happening in the brains of people who meditate, who practice charismatic prayer, or the like. Of course, the question remains unresolved whether the experiences are happening solely due to brain activity, or if the brain activity is somehow "plugged in" to a spiritual dimension that remains, for now, unmeasurable by science. I find this fascinating.

I just finished a truly fine example of the genre: Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Bradley Hagerty is a reporter on faith issues with NPR. Raised a Christian Scientist, she now practices with a mainline Protestant denomination. She intertwines her personal story and viewpoint with reports about different scientists — both believers and skeptics — who are studying brain function as it relates to spiritual experience.

The final chapter of the book summarizes some of her personal findings after the reporting she undertook for the book. Frankly, she sounds like a liberal Quaker ! Below are some excerpts from pages 181-183, which spoke to my condition:
As I delved into science, I realized I need not discard my faith. Rather, I must distinguish [faith] from spiritual experience…. Unlike spiritual experience, religious belief can never be tested by a brain scanner or even by historical record. No one can prove that Jesus is the Son of God. What religious belief does is attempt to explain in a compelling narrative the unseen reality that lies at the heart of spiritual experience…. [emphasis added]

Genesis is not, and never was intended to be, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Scripture is metaphorical, explaining the world in a way that humans could understand at the time it was written….

Embracing a particular faith is a little like hopping in a car. You can drive wherever you like [Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem…] What makes it run is under the hood. Spiritual experience is the engine that transports you from one place to another—and I believe the ability to perceive and engage God is written in each person’s genetic code and brain wiring. Religion is the overlay that allows people to navigate the world, and I came to believe that no one religion has an exclusive franchise on God, or truth….

It seems to me that Jesus’ words [“I am the way, the truth, and the life”] suggest what we do, and not what we proclaim. When Jesus says that the way to eternal life is to follow Him, that means trying to live as He did…. Can I prove that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course not. Does my instinct tell me that he is the Son of God, and that I should try to emulate Him? It does, and that instinct makes me better.
I would definitely recommend Fingerprints of God to anyone who is interested in the intersection of science and spirituality.


Guest Post: Amy Baker on What Really Happens at a Quaker Meeting for Worship?

My 300th post is a guest post by Amy Baker. This was published in the San Francisco Friends School newsletter, Circle Back, and is reprinted here with Amy's permission. Besides it being a good article, I'm tickled that she picked up my FAQQ meme! -- Chris Mohr

FAQQ: Frequently Asked Quaker Question:
What Really Happens at a Meeting for Worship?

By Amy Baker, San Francisco Monthly Meeting & Quaker Life Committee member

“What do you mean, there’s no priest?” my mother said, baffled, as I explained how the Meeting for Worship would proceed at my wedding. She had been unfailingly supportive as I adopted this faith, but for someone steeped in pre-Vatican II Catholic traditions, the concept of silent worship (unguided!) was a stretch.

There aren’t many places where we sit in silence, in our world. You might see an audience sitting in silence during a performance, and you might see a random collection of individuals sitting in silence in a library or a park, but how often do you experience a deliberate, collective silence? It’s hard to explain how different it is, and how powerful it can be, to sit in silence together with others.

The Quaker faith was founded on the principal that every person can have a direct relationship with God, without the intercession and interpretation of clergy. The Meeting for Worship is designed not just as a gathering of like minded worshipers, but as a place to meet with God in your mind. Each one of us can experience that “still, inner voice” that guides us, if only we set aside the time to reflect in silence. Even then, Meeting for Worship is different from solitary prayer. Friends seek connection to one another as they collectively discern the path forward.

I once heard ministry that described the silence like a painter’s canvas--even if the whole meeting is silent, it’s got boundaries and a certain richness to it. And when those present spontaneously stand and deliver a personal message, grounded in their own experience but related to some spiritual issue they have been working through in their mind, more color and depth is added to the canvas.

I have not found a service of worship where so much is left to the worshiper as it is in a Friends meeting. There are none of the usual cues, and it is up to the individual to tune in, quiet their mind, and direct their own spiritual experience. Some meetings I go through the entire time without ever clearing my mind of clutter I came in with. Other times I feel completely open, both to insights that percolate up and to messages I hear from fellow worshipers.

One aspect of Meeting for Worship I particularly like is its inclusiveness, in that it respects a wide diversity of religious backgrounds in a way that affirms the importance of all faiths. As foreign as it must have been for my mother to experience a Quaker Meeting, it didn’t detract from her own religion and I find that even the biggest religious skeptics I encounter can see the appeal in it.

If you have ever been curious to join a Meeting for Worship, as practiced by the San Francisco Monthly Meeting, please join other members of the SF Friends School community on Sunday, February 7th at 11am. Meeting for Worship lasts an hour, and afterward there will be a potluck meal to share, whether you bring a pot or not. The Meeting House is at 65 9th Street, between Mission & Market.

There is a short intro session at 10:40 if you want to learn more about the underpinnings of this form of worship, and there is supervision for children who choose not to stay in the Meeting after the first 15 minutes. There is also a caregiver in the nursery for babies and toddlers.

Collectively, we would love to see you there!
“I’ve been to meeting for worship at the SF Meeting House a couple of times over the years. It’s a great chance to learn more about Quakerism and to see if we adults can sit as quietly as our kids do during Meeting at school. The communally contemplative meeting room is a wonderful place to take time out from our ever hectic lives, think about what’s most important in our lives and hear inspired thoughts from others.”
-- SFFS Parent


Affirmation from meeting for business today

Today San Francisco Meeting's monthly meeting for worship with a concern for business, the first in 2010, went rather smoothly.

We heard about the internship program two members run for at-risk, low-income teens at their art gallery (a fine example of multiracial, cross-class organizing!), approved two new members, approved the 2010 budget, and heard the latest about a possible service project we're discerning whether or not to take up, among other things. The report on the gallery was particularly moving, as another Friend spoke about a recent performance he had attended, where the youth performed monologues they had created. He also talked about how the youth just adore Anne and Tony, the Friends who run the gallery and the program. He was fighting back tears as he said this, and as a former criminal defense attorney, he isn't prone to doing that often.

Business meeting was over in a bit less than two hours, I think, and in any case, it felt relatively short for the amount of business we conducted.

This is in sharp contrast to last month, when we had extensive conversation about the budget and didn't approve it; discussed the service project, and approved submitting an application to work with a service partner but were not ready to approve actually participating if we are accepted; and reviewed whether the minutes from the month before had appropriately recorded a difficult issue that month. It lasted over three hours, closer to three and a half, and was probably the longest one I've clerked in a bit over two and a half years of clerking.

Yet the meeting never descended to argumentation or bitterness. It was just long, and rather draining.

With today's meeting as a frame of reference, it now seems to me that last month we were plowing fertile, if perhaps fallow, ground. We had to break up the clods and ready the soil for the seeds. And so today the sprouts were appearing.

A first-time visitor from a small Friends meeting in Australia, who has moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for the next year or so, stayed for meeting for business. At the end, during "Affirmations, Joys, and Concerns," he said he had found our meeting for business to be spiritually grounded. I was grateful to him for saying so, and to San Francisco Friends for providing the evidence that prompted him to notice.

God, thank you for your many blessings!