Straight talk on preventing child abuse

The news this week reported that a grand jury has found evidence that over 300 Roman Catholic priests and workers in 6 dioceses in Pennsylvania molested over 1,000 children during a period going back decades. The news has re-opened a major wound in the Catholic church and in the hearts and minds of churches around the world.

Not only did these horrible things take place, but the church did not deal effectively with the perpetrators. In many cases, they were simply transferred to other places, where they very probably did the same things again to other children. The leaders who oversaw them were promoted, even as they failed in one of the most basic responsibilities of the church: to protect the youngest and the least.

In one of his clearest commandments in the entire gospel, Jesus said: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

I have a personal stake in this issue. I am a former Catholic. Although I left the Catholic church many years ago for other reasons, many of my family still belong. I have many Catholic friends. My book shelves include many Catholic devotionals. When I go on retreat, I often spend a few days in a Trappist community. So, the news this week shakes me. My mother, who died a year ago, was a devout Catholic all her life. But for the last 10 years or more, she didn’t go to Mass, because at least 3 of her parish priests – people she trusted – were dismissed or transferred because of sexual offenses.

Quakers and other Protestants shouldn’t think that this problem is confined to the Catholic branch of the Christian family. During my own career as a pastor, I have had to intervene twice in situations where we found out that members or attenders of the meeting were major league sexual offenders. The shock and conflict of the discovery dominated the life of the meeting for months.

Most yearly meetings recommend that everyone who works with young people should have a background check. Most local meetings I have been a part of resist this, saying that “But we know that person – they have belonged here for years!” Requiring a background check feels to some Friends like an invasion of privacy, or that it goes against the openness and trust which they value in a Quaker meeting. Why should we do a background check on a beloved grandmother who has been teaching Sunday School for 40 years? Why should we check out a popular youth leader in their 20’s?

There are compelling reasons why we need background checks, though. Many people who prey on children like to hide in church communities. The invisibility, the access to children, the many rooms and small spaces in church buildings and meetinghouses, all provide cover and camouflage for their activities. Even worse, things that take place in a religious atmosphere let predators intimidate children by saying that God will punish them if they tell their parents or speak to anyone.

When the meeting I served was wavering on this issue, I went first and had a criminal record check done on myself. The Young Friends leaders volunteered next, and soon all the meeting staff and all of the First Day School teachers agreed. In today’s world, parents need to know that this kind of “due diligence” check has been made. It tells them that we are actively looking out for the safety of their children.

Part of my annual routine with committee clerks and other leaders, as well as with all meeting staff, is having “the Talk” – what we do when we hear any complaints or rumors about sexual offenses, unwanted physical contact, harassment, inappropriate e-mails or offensive language. They are encouraged to contact the pastor, the clerk, or the clerk of Ministry and Counsel immediately, and we let them know that any such behavior is not acceptable in our meeting, will be dealt with. We will respect their privacy as much as they ask, but the meeting will not tolerate such behavior or enable it by our inaction or silence.

Background checks and leader awareness will never guarantee that we won’t have problems, of course. But for many Friends meetings, these are important first steps, and we need to be able to assure visitors, newcomers and families that we have taken them.

I’m sure that this post will trigger a lot of bad memories in some readers. Some of you may have other suggestions about how to prevent or how to handle these situations. Let me repeat: they can happen anywhere, even in a Friends meeting, and we need more open discussion and practical steps.

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Legacy or burden?

Quakers are particularly good at raising up voices from the past – from the lives and ministry of people who have lived in faith and who are (we believe) now with the Lord.

We publish their journals. We have schools and scholarships in their names. We maintain historic properties and meetinghouses. We manage and distribute income from endowments. We have vast archives of family records, monthly meeting minutes, and genealogies.

Sometimes it’s more than just a little intimidating to be the custodians and caregivers of all this history. Many Friends meetings are afflicted with what I call “brass plaque syndrome” – we want to memorialize every person and every gift, so that even when the people who gave the gifts are long gone and no one in the meeting has any personal memories, the brass plaques will still be there as a reminder.

Springfield Friends Meeting, where I serve as pastor, has 42 brass plaques in the worship room alone. There are also two historic grandfather clocks, one of which was built by a Quaker cabinetmaker in 1797, traveled to Indiana and on to Washington during the great Quaker migrations, and was brought back here in the 1930’s.

There are also two large, ornate and no doubt historically significant earthenware jars, an organ, a piano, a pulpit, pew card holders and a dozen replacement energy-efficient windows with names on them, plus two large cast-bronze plaques on the outside of our “new” 1927 meetinghouse, on the covered walkway leading to our “old” 1858 meetinghouse, which now holds a delightful Museum of Old Domestic Life, filled with things in daily use in Quaker homes from the 1800’s.

Other legacy items are less historic but full of emotion. Last week one of our older members said, “I want you to have my son’s guitar. He died of cancer when he was 16. I want you to play it.” When someone offers you a gift like that, you can’t say no.

On a shelf in my office is a small stuffed toy bear, which I keep as a personal reminder of a member of West Richmond Friends who lost her husband of almost 70 years and clung to the bear for months, crying and helplessly calling his name. Marie’s bear is going to be with me for a while.

It’s a great privilege to care for so many pieces of faithful lives. I’ve re-edited one of the great Quaker journals, The Autobiography of Allen Jay, a minister who Rufus Jones called “the best loved Quaker in America,” and given dozens of talks and workshops. I discovered for myself and shared the first-hand stories of Quaker suffering during the Civil War which Stanley Pumphrey, an English Friend, recorded from the simple North Carolina Friends who lived through it.

More than most other religious groups, Quakers constantly refer to our past – the “historic testimonies” of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality are regularly featured in Quaker circles. Pound for pound, we quote our founding leaders more than anyone else I know.

There are times when Quakers feel that our past is more of a burden than we want to bear. I have visited many Quaker meetings which keep on using historic benches which are really uncomfortable, or furniture which is worn and ugly. I have visited dozens of meeting libraries which are filled with books which haven’t been taken off the shelves since the Eisenhower administration, but which no one has the nerve to throw away.

One issue to which I am particularly sensitive is how our obsession with the past comes across to newcomers. Some people (especially those with Quaker ancestors) are excited by our history, while other people are turned off or simply puzzled by Quaker jargon and Quaker genealogies, which they experience as a serious barrier to being included.

I’m a great believer in the value of mission work and have given many hundreds of hours to supporting it. I’ve also heard Quaker leaders complain about what they call “legacy missions” which they feel are draining energy and money and which keep us from stepping out in new directions.

What do we do about this? There will always (or at least for a while) be Quakers who want to preserve, protect and enshrine our past. There will also be Quakers who are more-or-less oblivious to the precious but moth-eaten chair that a certain beloved minister sat in for 40 years, who are much more concerned with new ministries should take precedence over Quaker antiquities.

How have you wrestled with this problem in your own life, in the life of your meeting, and in the life of Quaker organizations? When does learning from the past cross over the line and become deifying it? How do you physically handle all that historic stuff? I look forward to some lively responses.

Famous Friends

I created the following list for our meeting web site (springfieldfriends.org) but thought I would share it with a wider audience as well. There are so many Friends who have had great influence — not just on the Quaker world, but on the world outside! This list is a work in progress, so please let me know what Friends I’ve missed.

Famous Friends

George Fox (1624-1691) – Probably the one person more than anyone else who can be called the “founder” of Friends. His Journal is a classic for Quakers and non-Quakers alike as a record of spiritual struggle and practical activity

Isaac Penington (1616-1679) – One of the most famous Quaker writers of the first generation, often imprisoned. Many of his writings on prayer have become Quaker classics.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) – “The mother of Quakerism”, she was an organizing genius — setting up new meetings, arranging for the relief of Quakers in prison and their families, writing, travelling, and often in jail herself. Her home, Swarthmoor Hall in Lancashire, England, was a busy hub of Quaker activity. Eleven years after her first husband’s death, she married George Fox.

William Penn (1644-1718) – Famous not only for establishing the colony of Pennsylvania, but for making the only treaties with Native Americans which were never broken; also famous for his part in the Penn-Meade trial in 1670, which established the right for juries to bring in their verdict without being intimidated by judge or state. Among his many writings, No Cross, No Crown and Fruits of Solitude are still popular.

Robert Barclay (1648-1690) – His book, Apology for the True Christian Divinity, was for many years the “standard” book of Quaker theology. It is still one of the best guides to what Friends believe.

Mary Dyer (died 1660) – Was hanged by the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts along with four other people on Boston Common for protesting the brutal anti-Quaker laws of Massachusetts; one of the earliest witnesses for religious freedom and toleration.

Samuel Bownas (1676-1753) – traveling minister, his book A Description of the Qualifications of a Gospel Minister has been rediscovered as a Quaker classic.

John Woolman (1720-1772) – Almost single-handedly awoke Friends to the evils of slavery. By the middle of the century, no Quakers held slaves, which made it much easier for Friends to take the lead in the anti-slavery movement. Also famous for his peacemaking journeys into the wilderness among Native Americans

Stephen Grellet (1773-1855), traveling minister and reformer; born in France and served in the personal guard of Louis XVI, he escaped execution during the French Revolution and converted to Quakerism. Traveled throughout Europe, Russia and the U.S.

Elias Hicks (1748-1830) – Quaker farmer from Long Island, travelling minister and great preacher; one of the central figures of the Orthodox-Hicksite separation of Friends in the 1820’s, Hicks was a strong believer in the “quietist” tradition of complete dependence on the Spirit.

John Dalton (1766-1844) – Quaker scientist who discovered the fact that each element has a characteristic “atomic weight”; also discovered that all gases share the same coefficient of expansion; also the first person to describe color blindness.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) – Famous for her early work in prison reform and against capital punishment; personally visited all of the ships transporting women prisoners to Australia; helped to stamp out suttee (the practice in India of requiring widows to jump onto their husband’s funeral pyres); first woman to appear before British Parliament; strongly influenced founding of the Red Cross.

Edward Hicks (1780-1849) – American painter, famous for his dozens of renditions of the “Peaceable Kingdom” in Isaiah 11:6-9

Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) – Younger brother of Elizabeth Fry, social activist, Bible scholar, organizer of Sunday Schools; author of A Peculiar People: Primitive Christianity Revived, a classic of Quaker theology. One of the chief figures in the Orthodox-Hicksite separations of the 1820’s.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877) – Known as “the President of the Underground Railroad”, helped to organize the escape to freedom of hundreds of slaves.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) – Anti-slavery writer and poet; many of his poems are found in standard hymnals in all churches

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) – Minister, anti-slavery worker, pioneer in the temperance and especially the women’s rights movements

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) – Social reformer and leader of the women’s suffrage movement.

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) – Doctor and surgeon, developed modern antiseptic techniques which have saved the lives of millions; transformed surgery from a dangerous, last-resort tool to a relatively safe procedure.

Allen Jay (1831-1910) – Minister, educator, and leader, he was one of the best-known Friends in the U.S. in the 1800’s. He worked on the Underground Railroad, built schools and colleges, helped organize Quaker missionary work, was a conscientious objector in the Civil War, and was deeply involved in the emergence and growth of pastoral Friends meetings

Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) – Mathematical astrophysicist; hypothesized that stars are fueled by the transformation of hydrogen into helium and helped to verify the correctness of Einstein’s theories.

Rufus Jones (1863-1948) – Teacher, lecturer, writer of many books, founder of the American Friends Service Committee; editor of The American Friend (now Quaker Life); travelled to Nazi Germany in an effort to negotiate the freedom of Jews.

Thomas Kelly (1893-1941) – Professor and writer, more famous after his “rebirth” as an adult. His Testament of Devotion is a classic on the inner life.

D. Elton Trueblood (1900-1994) – Professor and writer, founder of the Yokefellow movement. Influenced tens of thousands through his many books.

Other famous Quakers:

Actors and film makers:

Ben Kingsley (1943-_) GandhiSchindler’s List, Iron Man 3, Prince of PersiaThe Jungle Book

James Dean (1931-1955), Rebel Without a CauseEast of Eden

Judi Dench (1934-) (Shakespeare in Love, As Time Goes ByA Room With a View, GoldenEye, Chocolat, Victoria and Abdul, Murder on the Orient Express

Kevin Bacon (1958-), A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Mystic River

David Lean (1908-1981), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India

Musicians:

Joan Baez (1941-), Diamonds and Rust, There But for Fortune, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

David Byrne (1952-), lead singer for Talking Heads

Sydney Carter (1915-2004), Lord of the Dance, Julian of Norwich

John McCutcheon (1952-), hammered dulcimer player and children’s music writer

Dave Matthews (1976-), lead singer for the Dave Matthews Band

Carrie Newcomer (1958-), Sanctuary, I Heard an Owl, If Not Now

Bonnie Raitt (1949-), Something to Talk About, I Can’t Make You Love Me

Donald Swann (1923-1994), prolific British composer, wrote more than 2,000 songs

Joseph Terrell (1990-), lead singer for bluegrass band MIPSO

Nobel Prize winners:

1946 for Peace – Emily Green Balch (1867-1961)

1947 for Peace – American Friends Service Committee and Friends Service Council

1959 for Peace – Philip Noel-Baker (1889-1982)

1993 for Physics – Joseph Taylor (1941-), discovery of binary pulsar

1996 for Economics –William Vickrey

Artists:

Cassius Coolidge (1844-1934), Dogs Playing Cards

Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990) , illustrator

Sylvia Shaw Judson (1897-1978), sculptor and author of The Quiet Eye

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), painter

James Turrell (1943-), MacArthur prize winner, famous for his SkyScape installations

Science: 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-), astronomer, discovered pulsars

Peter Collinson (1694-1768), botanist

John Dalton (1766-1844), chemist, physicist, meteorologist; developer of atomic theory, first table of atomic weights, first description of color blindness, law of partial pressures of gasses

Arthur Stanley Eddington (188201944) – astrophysics, predicted that stars are fueled by the fusion of hydrogen into helium

Ursula Franklin (1921-2016) – metallurgist, feminist, peacemaker, environmentalist

Luke Howard (1772-1864), meteorologist and pharmacist, classified clouds

Len Lamerton (1915-1999), pioneer in nuclear medicine and radiation biology

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), crystallographer

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), astronomer

Thomas Young (1773-1829),doctor, scientist, developed theory of light waves; assisted in the translation of the Rosetta Stone

Joseph Taylor (1941-), astronomy, discovered first binary pulsar

Medicine:

John Fothergill (1712-1780), doctor who developed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, described trigeminal neuralgia and strep throat; also a famous botanist and founder of Ackworth School

Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866), physician who described Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Mary Calderone (1904-1998), advocate for sex education and the use of birth control

William Tuke (1732-1832) and son Henry Tuke (1755-1814), founders of the York Retreat which pioneered in the humane treatment of the mentally ill

Educators:

Elise Boulding (1920-2010), peacemaker, pioneered in peace and conflict resolution studies

Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993), economist, and educator

Henry Cadbury (1883-1974), Bible scholar, historian, chairman of the AFSC

Wilmer Cooper (1920-2008), founding dean of Earlham School of Religion, author of A Living Faith

Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990), management theorist, founder of the Servant Leadership movement

Barnabas Hobbs (1815-1892), first president of Earlham College later Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of Indiana

Mary Mendenhall Hobbs (1852-1930), educator, historian, and worker for women’s rights

Rufus Jones (1863-1948), Quaker educator and theologian

Douglas Steere (1901-1995), professor of philosophy at Haverford College, international relief organizer, ecumenical and spiritual writer

Well-known writers:

Piers Anthony (1934-), prolific science fiction writer

Sandra Boynton (1953-), children’s book writer, composer, director

Margaret Drabble (1939-), The Millstone, Jerusalem the Golden

Richard J. Foster (1942-), Celebration of Discipline, Freedom of Simplicity

Elfrida Vipont Foulds (1902-1992), The Story of Quakerism, Blow the Man Down, Some Christian Festivals

Philip GulleyFront Porch Tales, Home to Harmony, If Grace is True, If the Church Were Christian

Jan de Hartog (1914-2002), The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, A Sailor’s Life

T. Canby Jones (1921-2008), professor at Wilmington College and noted scholar of George Fox and Thomas Kelly

Eric Knight (1897-1943), Lassie, Come Home

James Michener (1907-1997), Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Bridges at Toko-Ri

Tom Mullen (1934-2009), A Very Good Marriage, Where 2 or 3 Are Gathered, Laughing Out Loud

Daisy Newman (1904-1994), I Take Thee Serenity, Diligence in Love, Now That April’s Here

Parker Palmer (1939 – ), The Courage to Teach, To Know As We Are Known, A Hidden Wholeness

John Punshon (1935-2017), historian and lecturer, author of Portrait in Grey and Encounter With Silence

Brinton Turkle (1915-2003 ), Thy Friend Obiadiah, Obadiah the Bold, Rachel and Obadiah, Do No Open

Anna Sewell (1820-1878), Black Beauty

Elizabeth Gray Vining (1902-1999), Windows for the Crown PrinceAdam of the Road

Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911), The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life

Jessamyn West (1902-1984), The Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee, The Quaker Reader, The Woman Said Yes

Jane Yolen (1939-), Owl Moon, Sister Light Sister Dark, Sword of the Rightful King

Social change:

Jane Addams (1860-1935), social worker

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), American suffragist, abolitionist, and pioneer of feminism and civil rights

Eric Baker (1920-1976) activist, co-founder of Amnesty International and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961), economist, peacemaker, winner of Nobel Peace Prize

Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805-1879), worked for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights

Benjamin Lay (1862-1759), early abolitionist

Sam Levering (1908-1994) and Miriam Levering (1913-1991) – peacemakers, guided the drafting and signing of the international Law of the Sea treaty in 1982

Alice Paul (1895-1977), worked for women’s right to vote

Clarence Pickett (1884-1965), longtime Executive Secretary for the American Friends Service Committee

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), civil rights leader.

Ham Seok-heon (1901-1989), Korean peace activist

Politics:

John Archdale, (1642-1717), Quaker governor of North Carolina

John Bright, (1811-1889), British politician, electoral reformer, free-trade advocate

Herbert Hoover (1864-1964), engineer, relief administrator, U.S. president

Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), Japanese diplomat, educator, author

Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), senator and U.S. president

James Logan (1674-1751), mayor of Philadelphia, merchant, scientist and developer of the Conestoga wagon

Philip Noel-Baker (1899-1982) British Olympic athlete, politician, peacemaker

Industry:

Moses Brown (1738-1836), industrialist and philanthropist

John Cadbury (1801-1889) and George Cadbury (1839-1922), chocolate manufacturers

Abraham Darby I (1678-1717), ironmaster
Abraham Darby II (1711-1763), ironmaster
Abraham Darby III (1750-1791), ironmaster

Charles Elmer Hires (1851-1939), pharmacist who invented root beer

Johns Hopkins (1795-1873), industrialist and philanthropist

Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883), creator of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, one of the best-selling patent medicines of the 1800’s, containing unicorn root, fenugreek, black cohosh root, and a large percentage of alcohol. You can still buy it at many drug stores!

John Wilhelm Rowntree (1868-1905), chocolate maker and reformer

Elbridge Stuart (1836-1944), creator of Carnation Evaporated Milk, “the milk from contented cows”

Journalism:

Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965), journalist

Other categories:

Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), surveyor who helped establish the Mason-Dixon Line

Ray Hayworth (1904-2002), major league baseball player

Jimmie Lewallen, NASCAR racing driver

Famous people with Quaker background:

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), author, printer, politician, inventor

Daniel Boone (1734-1820), pioneer

Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), Revolutionary War general

Dolley Madison (1768-1849), wife of US President James Madison

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Trappist monk and writer

Annie Oakley (1860-1926), Wild West sharpshooter

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), political activist

Betsy Ross (1752-1836), creator of the U.S. flag

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), poet

Businesses started by Quakers:

Allen and Hanbury (pharmaceuticals)

Barclay’s Bank

Bethlehem Steel

Bradshaw’s Railway Guide

Cadbury (chocolate)

Carr’s Biscuits

Clark’s (shoes)

Friends Provident (life insurance)

Fry’s (chocolate)

Furnas Withy (ship builders)

Lloyd’s Bank

Rowntree (chocolate)

Sandy Spring Friends Bank

SONY

Waterford Crystal

Non-governmental organizations started by Quakers:

Alternatives to Violence Project

American Friends Service Committee

Amnesty International

Greenpeace

Oxfam

Right Sharing of World Resources

Cherry blossoms

I’ve got a thing for cherry trees. As I write this, a big cherry tree is in full bloom right outside my office window. It looks like daylight fireworks – tens of thousands of pale pink blossoms exploding exuberantly, about 30 feet from my desk.

The Japanese have an enormous nation-wide cultural thing for cherry blossoms. During cherry blossom season, huge crowds of people go to the parks to enjoy them. Every night on national TV there are reports of how the season is progressing in different parts of the country. Pictures of cherry blossoms are on everything from kimonos to corporate logos. Every school child in Japan knows the cherry blossom song – Sakura, sakura.

Part of the Japanese love for cherry blossoms is simply that they’re so beautiful – something beyond our human ability to make or build. It’s a beauty which stretches our sense of the divine, which connects us directly to God without any words or explanation being necessary.

The other side of cherry blossoms, of course, is that they are fragile and only last a few days. A high wind or a late frost can wipe them away. This year we had a long spell of unseasonably cool weather (for North Carolina) which made the cherry blossom season last longer than usual. We had a sleet storm last weekend and I thought they would all be gone, but it warmed up the next day and they bloomed more beautifully than ever before.

For the Japanese, cherry blossoms are a symbol of life – how brief a time we have here on earth, how important it is to stop and appreciate moments of beauty, how much our souls yearn to connect with God.

Sometimes I think that Quakers have it right, when we stop to listen or wait until God speaks, remembering the advice of London Yearly Meeting: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” At our best, Quakers are experts at noticing those “cherry blossom moments” in our individual lives and in our life together.

In our not-so-good times, though, we forget that time is flying past, that a whole generation can come and go without our trying to really listen to them. We live in the past so much that we can completely miss the present, and do nothing to build for the future.

Yesterday evening I was walking home from our midweek Bible study and happened to look up and saw the full moon nestled in the top branches of the cherry tree. If I’d been walking along as usual with my nose to the ground I would have completely missed this transcendent moment, which brought me to a stop for at least ten minutes. It was a blessing beyond words.

Even though the tree outside my office is still in full bloom, a few petals are already falling. There’s a beauty in that, too, when a light breeze makes the petals fall like rain, and children from the neighborhood go dancing through them with their hands reaching up toward the sky. There’s a beauty in old things (and older people) who have filled their lives with beauty and know the right time to fall to the ground.

Yesterday when I went to open up for Bible study, a couple of dozen cherry petals blew in through the door to rest on the mat. Even in our indoor lives, God has a way of invading our space with beauty and with reminders to stop and enjoy.

Trash talk

Every now and then, when I’ve got a free half hour and need a break, I grab a couple of big black garbage bags and a set of nabbers and walk along the roads that bound our meeting’s property. It still amazes me, the things people throw out.

Today I filled two large bags in no time at all. Dozens and dozens of bottles – North Carolina doesn’t have a bottle and can deposit law. Hard liquor, malt liquor, soft drinks, go cups, soda cans, bottled water, baby food, energy drinks, you name it. I know every fast food place in this part of town, and I could probably tell them all what their customers’ favorites are. I picked up soda straws, empty cigarette and cigar packages (Newport Menthol appears to be the favorite around here), snuff containers, paper bags, styrofoam trays and lottery tickets.

Some things were too big to pick up or drag back, and will have to wait till our meeting’s Clean Up Day next month – a shopping cart, old tires, a TV set, old window frames. Down at the corner by the cemetery, this week somebody abandoned a Chevy 3500 van in the ditch. Whoever did it left the license plate on, so when I called it in the police will have something to go on. Maybe it was stolen or taken for a joyride.

As a Christian, I know I’m supposed to be non-judgmental, but picking up hundreds of pounds of other people’s litter every year gets to be kind of old. I mentioned this to the head of our House and Grounds committee, a native of the area famous for his bluntness, who said, “Hell, they don’t care! They just drivin’ on down the road and phwtt! out the window she goes!”

Quakers are supposed to be advocates for world peace and non-violence, and I don’t think I would actually do any physical harm to these jerks. But it’s depressing to think that there is simply no way anyone on earth could reason with people who throw their trash by the roadside. They really don’t care, and I doubt that anyone will ever make them care.

There are much worse sins than littering, but in a way it’s symptomatic of the way human beings are broken. How could people who are made in God’s image, who were formed for the garden of Eden, who were told by God to be stewards of this earth, act this way?

Could be that their parents didn’t teach them. Could be that they’re so poor that they don’t feel any sense of ownership or belonging or responsibility for the community they live in. But I have a feeling that until people care enough to quit littering, we won’t have peace in this part of North Carolina. And if we keep filling up the world with garbage and don’t care who has to deal with it, we may not have peace with our neighbors, or with the world.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on picking up trash in our neighborhood.

Why does growth happen?

Most of the time we don’t think about why a Friends meeting grows. It happens, or it doesn’t, and we’re glad about it, or we complain about it. But we don’t often stand back and try to figure out what’s going on.

There are a lot of different models or patterns out there competing for our attention. For example, some Friends think that growth happens mainly as a result of prayer. I agree – but I don’t agree with the way it’s usually done.

Just one prayer, tacked on as an afterthought to whatever else we happen to be doing, isn’t going to make much difference. I don’t think we need to ask God to get interested in church growth. Rather, we need to ask God to help get us interested in growing!

Praying for growth needs to become one of our core concerns. We need to lift it up to God regularly, and ask God for guidance in season and out of season, over a long period of time. Praying to grow needs to be both something we do privately and individually, and also publicly as part of our worship, in our committee meetings, in our newsletters and social media.

Other people think that growth happens as a result of programs. Whether you call them “ministries,” “community services,” or just “things we do,” programs offered by the church can be an open door for new people to enter.

And again, high-quality programs don’t just happen on their own. They need planning, prayer, and practical support. Too many church programs run on inertia – “we’ve always done it that way” – rather than intentionality – “this is what we really want to happen.”

Some churches grow because they have charismatic leadership. I guess the meeting where I serve is off the hook on that one – my leadership style is very low-key, and people tease me and say that I sound more like Mister Rogers than Billy Graham. Still, a meeting with leaders who are depressed or full of angst are probably less likely to grow than meetings where the leaders are upbeat and positive.

Some folks think that church growth takes place when worship is exciting and up-to-date. This is the push behind a lot of contemporary church music, multi-media and new church architecture.

I’m not against change or experimenting with new things – but my question is always, “are people being spiritually fed?” New things can become just as boring as the old ones they replace. Growth comes from nutrition, not novelty.

Another way to encourage church growth is through small groups. Many people enjoy having a small circle of friends who they can get to know better. Too many Quaker meetings promote acquaintanceship, not friendship. Sunday School classes, prayer circles, supper groups, work teams, study groups are all places where people can make deeper friendships. It’s often easier to start a new group than to incorporate people into an existing one.

A lot of importance is attached to the beliefs which are held and promoted by Friends. Some meetings go to great lengths to spell out in detail what they believe (or, more likely, what the leaders think their members should believe!) Well-thought-out intellectual beliefs are important, and Quakers do have a few beliefs which set us apart from the rest of the pack. In the long run, though, belief is more a matter of trust in God than anything else.

My hunch is that growth happens because of all of these things, working together to make our meeting an open and inviting place. And it happens when we pay attention to individuals – when we listen to people’s stories, learn about their lives, encourage them to share their gifts, and welcome their ideas.

Happy New Year!

Quakers, of all people, recognize that whatever we call “worship” doesn’t have to follow any set guidelines. Even in Quaker meetings where the worship is programmed or semi-programmed, most don’t have a lectionary (a regular schedule of Scripture readings used by many churches).

We have customs, and many of our customs can get pretty set in stone – there’s the time-worn joke, all too true, about a visitor being told by an old-timer, “You’re sitting in my seat!” Quaker prayers and sermons can start sounding pretty much the same from one week to the next – or from one year or decade to the next.

Entering a worship space can be very daunting. Newcomers may be impressed by our plain and simple architecture, but they may also be wondering, “Where’s the cross?” Or, if they walk in during open worship, they may be wondering, “Why isn’t anybody saying anything?” Even lifelong members and attenders may not know the reasons why Quakers do some things (and don’t do others).

It’s nice when we can shake things up and let everyone recapture the sense of wonder, of worship, of friendship and joy.

Last Sunday, on New Year’s Eve, we were expecting record low temperatures and a correspondingly low turnout for worship. The big room where we worship most Sundays was likely going to be three-quarters empty, and it was going to take a LOT of fuel oil to bring it up to a comfortable level of warmth.

So we asked around to see if anyone would mind if we moved worship into the chapel, a smaller, seldom-used room which was built in the 1950’s to accommodate the large number of weddings we held during the Baby Boom years. We sent out a mass e-mail, and put up some signs re-directing people to the chapel on Sunday morning.

One other factor was that most of us were feeling pretty “Christmased out”. The avalanche of Christmas specials on TV, the carols in the stores that started playing this year back in September, the sales, the decorations, the parties, the whole nine yards of American hyper-celebration. Our meeting didn’t stand aside from all this, either – our young people put on a creative and hugely successful Christmas dinner theater. Our choir had a wonderful Christmas music Sunday. We packed the worship room for our Christmas Eve candlelight service. We were “all in” for Christmas this year, but by New Year’s Eve we all felt a little trashed – the pastor included.

So, we moved into a different and slightly unfamiliar space for worship. We still had about a dozen poinsettias left (most of them had gone home the week before), so we put them on the windowsills. I thought some people might be chilly – people in North Carolina get cold any time the outdoor temperature drops below 30 degrees – so I put a bunch of shawls and blankets up on the railing of the facing bench. Best of all, I brought in a couple of rocking chairs from my office.

No one really wanted yet another sermon about the meaning of Christmas, so we ditched the sermon. Instead, I read the story of the wise people who came seeking the newborn baby Jesus, and played a bunch of carols which were new to most of the people at worship that day – the Holly Tree Carol, The Friendly Beasts and the ancient carol, The Miraculous Harvest. They were surprised when I told them that I Wonder As I Wander was collected in nearby Murphy, North Carolina, by the pioneering folklorist, John Jacob Niles.

One of my deepest convictions is that Christ came not just for Christians in America, but for people everywhere in the world, so we sang Silent Night in several languages. I shared the new carol I wrote this year, A Christmas Blessing. And we all joined in singing O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Instead of being spread out thinly in a chilly room, we were just a little bit crowded in the chapel, and it felt great. Two of our older members beamed at everyone from the rocking chairs – it felt more like a family get-together in a living room than like a church. Or is church supposed to feel that way?

Altogether, it was a wonderful morning, and people lingered after meeting longer than usual to ask about each others’ families and to wish each other a happy New Year.


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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