Report from Friends General Conference

This summer, I was invited to come to the Gathering of Friends General Conference to present a series of five daily workshops on the history of Friends in the 1800’s, as seen through the eyes of Allen Jay, who was one of the best known Quakers in the 19th century. Full disclosure: Allen Jay was also one of the founding member of West Richmond Friends, where I’ve been serving for the last 22 years, and a leader at Springfield Friends in High Point, NC, where I’m moving this summer.

Over 1,400 people were at the FGC Gathering, which was held at Western Carolina State University in Culhowhee, NC, high in the Smoky Mountains. At the opening session, people from all of the different yearly meetings and Quaker organizations were asked to stand. I stood when the New Association of Friends was called, and all week long people came up to me to ask about our group.

Nearly everyone I met at FGC knew about West Richmond’s welcoming and affirming minute – many FGC folks have been welcoming and affirming for much longer than our meeting. Everyone who spoke with me expressed support and prayers for our meeting.

The workshops I gave were extremely popular – I’d expected about 20 attenders, and wound up with 32! All of the copies of the Autobiography of Allen Jay were sold out at the bookstore on the first day of the gathering. The workshops met every morning from 9:00 to 11:45, and included worship, a hymn, an hour of lecture, discussion, and reading aloud from Allen Jay’s comments on the changes in Quaker life and practice in the 1800’s.

Afternoons for me were filled with workshops and interest groups, visits to the bookstore, rest and reading. Late one afternoon I was playing my hammered dulcimer out by the fountain in the plaza near our dorm. I looked up and found that a group of 12-15 Quakers had joined me and were all doing tai chi nearby, standing on one foot like a flock of Friendly flamingoes!

I especially enjoyed workshops on how to promote your meeting on social media, theological diversity among Friends, and a deeply moving presentation by an elder from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people, who have a reservation near the campus where we were meeting.

Max Carter also led a standing-room-only interest group where he shared recent developments in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), which is facing pressure to divide the yearly meeting, mainly over the issue of homosexuality. I was asked to share our meeting’s experience with the breakup of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

In the evening plenary sessions, we listened to two attorneys from North Carolina talk about their work to oppose mass incarceration of African-Americans; an inspiring talk by educator and writer Parker Palmer; and a great concert by Indiana Quaker songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

My wife often criticizes me for not standing and cheering at concerts. I think I was the first person in the auditorium on my feet for the standing ovation after Carrie’s song, I Heard An Owl, with its chorus:

So don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will,
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves,
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love

My room mate, Eric, was an African-American Quaker from Atlanta, Georgia, who phoned home twice a day to his wife and joked with me constantly about how Quakers take themselves too seriously. He was deeply interested in what I had to tell him about the Alternatives to Violence Project and about Open Arms Ministries, a group of 15 churches in Richmond who work together to help people who have fallen between the cracks of other programs.

Unlike many Quaker groups, FGC does not hold business sessions at its annual gathering – which may be one reason why so many people enjoy it! As Parker Palmer commented, “People are leaving religion because of theological food fights…” He also commented that “conflict is not the end of community”, and quoted Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, who said – “Community is a continual act of forgiveness…”

As a Quaker pastor at an overwhelmingly unprogrammed gathering, I had expected to be challenged by angry Friends lecturing me about how “Quakers don’t have pastors!” (this is an experience I’ve had at a number of FGC yearly meetings). Instead, all through the week, people kept asking to sit down with me at meal times to ask about the New Association of Friends, to learn more about Allen Jay, or to talk about their ministries or challenges in their lives and meetings.

Did I agree with everyone I met at FGC, or with everything I heard? Of course not – I never expected that! But there were so many opportunities for prayer and worship, for conversation and listening, for learning about how different people are following their leadings, for making new friends, for browsing delicious books at the bookstore, for seeing new forms of art, for seeing how lively and diverse Quaker faith can be.

Back again after a while

I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a while — it’s been a difficult year and I didn’t have the time or energy.

At the end of this summer I will be moving to High Point, North Carolina, where I’ve been called to serve as pastor at Springfield Friends Meeting. Thanks to all the Friends who have shared their good wishes and blessings!

Josh Brown

Pastoral calls

Hi, all – I’m back from vacation, during which I did my best to put aside my work and not to think any Quaker thoughts at all!

In my last post, I said that one reason that I’m a Quaker pastor is that I love visiting people. In a typical month, I make between 30 to 50 calls and visits.

Many people today don’t seem to know what to expect in a “pastoral call”. In the old days, a visit from the minister meant cleaning the house from top to bottom, everyone scrubbed and on their best behavior, the family Bible dusted and on prominent display in the parlor. Those days of artificial formality are past!

Folks in our meeting are pretty busy, and I make lot of “quick visits” by e-mail or phone. I also get dozens of messages every day from people who want to share news, ask questions or ideas. People often pull me aside for a moment during coffee hour, but those conversations are usually interrupted and always short.

Even in today’s high-tech world, many people prefer a face-to-face visit rather than a phone conversation or e-mail. I hold regular office hours 4 mornings a week for people to drop in at the meeting office. Office hours are “interruptable time” when I can set aside whatever I’m doing and spend time listening.

Visits take place in homes or hospitals, but can also be at work or at a coffee shop. Several times a month, I run into people from our meeting in the grocery store. We block the aisle and catch up on things for 10 or 15 minutes. Not everyone likes to sit down in a chair and open up – some people talk more easily when we’re out on a walk, or working together on some manual task.

Sometimes people want to talk about an illness or personal problem, but often folks just want me to get to know them better. I’ve started thousands of conversations by asking people to tell me about the photos they keep on the mantel or by their bedside.

If we talk about important personal issues in a pastoral conversation, people can expect complete confidentiality. One of the most important ministries we can offer is simply listening – providing a safe place to share doubts, difficult situations and deep questions.

People talk about every subject under the sun – parenting problems, whether to sign a living will, whether pets go to Heaven, questions about a book they’ve read or a message they heard in worship. Sometimes a pastoral conversation is a kind of mini clearness committee, other times it’s a celebration of life. People share journals, recipes, meaningful mementoes, crafts they’ve done, job applications they’re working on. We talk about divorce, illness, career changes, aging parents and moral crises as well as vacations and grandchildren.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is simply be there – in an emergency room, or in a surgery waiting room, or in the long hours sitting by the bed when someone is dying. Holding someone’s hand can be the most important kind of ministry there is.

When I come calling, I never ask for money. In fact, I don’t know how much anyone gives to the meeting, unless they choose to tell me. That’s the treasurer’s job, not the pastor’s. I may use a visit to share some news, invite people to participate in a meeting-related activity, or talk about an opportunity for ministry.

In the old days, the pastor was expected to pray at every visit. I’m always glad to pray with people, but I don’t like to be pushy – prayer isn’t something to be embarrassed about, but it is very personal. Some people in our meeting like to have quiet prayer time together. Out of the quiet, it may be easier to share what they’ve been thinking about.

As Friends consider new patterns of ministry for the 21st century – new forms of worship, new spiritual communities, new ways to organize – I hope that we’ll remember that direct, person-to-person care is one of the most important ministries of all.

Dealing with silence

Quakers are world-famous for our love of quiet worship. Nearly every article or online source you’ll find refers to our long history of worshiping in silence.

I never read the articles and books before I became a Friend. I stumbled into Quaker worship when my college room mate invited me to visit Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. My first-year room mate was an inveterate explorer of different religious traditions – he was into every kind of spirituality and mystical experience he could find. He’d been to an unprogrammed meeting the week before and asked me to come and keep him company.

For me, Quaker meeting was like coming home to a place I’d never known was home before. I fit effortlessly into the silence, as though I was putting on a well-worn, comfortable shoe. I was surprised when the hour was over and everyone started shaking hands.

When I started looking through the books in the meeting library, I found this quotation from Robert Barclay:

“. . .when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart. . .” (Apology, XI, Section 7)

For almost 10 years I attended and was a member of unprogrammed Friends meetings. I went to Earlham School of Religion for 3 years because I had questions I wanted answered, books I wanted to read, and skills I wanted to learn.

But like most unprogrammed Friends, I had no idea that there was another branch of the Quaker family – or that those “other” Friends actually made up the majority of the Quaker world.

I wound up being a Quaker pastor – something I never imagined doing – more because of my love for visiting and helping people than because I wanted to preach. I also felt that most unprogrammed meetings neglect the rich tradition of Scripture, do a pretty poor job of sharing their story, and tend not to have very good educational programming.

I also found out that not everyone likes extended periods of quiet worship. I still find that surprising – quiet prayer feeds my heart so deeply, and I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging. But not everyone is built that way.

This week, a friend sent me an article about an experiment that many people would literally rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in silence. (NOTE: the point of the study is actually that many men would rather jolt themselves than sit quietly – women apparently have more tolerance for silence.)

West Richmond Friends, the meeting where I work and worship, is a “crossroads” meeting – we have folks from both the programmed and unprogrammed branches of the Quaker family, as well as refugees from other traditions and people with no previous religious background. We usually have 2 or 3 hymns, a children’s message, a Scripture reading, a very short sermon, and 15-25 minutes of quiet, called “open worship” in our meeting.

In an effort to keep everyone satisfied, we also have a full hour of unprogrammed worship several times a year (usually on the last Sunday of any month when there are 5 Sundays).

It’s clear that some people in our meeting deal with silence more easily than others. Even on a “normal” Sunday, some Friends start to squirm and wiggle after only 5 minutes of quiet, and looks of glazed-eye, near-death boredom set in after 10 or 15 minutes (I’m usually on the facing bench and can observe these things). Other people in the meeting tell me they’re “just starting to settle in” after 20 minutes, and complain if anything cuts into or shortens the “open worship” time.

In my 30+ years of work as a Quaker pastor, the most consistent and persistent issue which comes up in committees, evaluations, and surveys is this tension between Friends who love and value the silence, and Friends who are completely satisfied with 50%-90% less quiet time. (At West Richmond, our attendance typically drops about 40% on completely unprogrammed Sundays.)

This isn’t just an issue for programmed and semi-programmed meetings. When I worked in New York Yearly Meeting, and a Friend there once told me that he had attended his unprogrammed meeting faithfully for more than 40 years without having any kind of “spiritual experience” like the ones his fellow worshipers described. He told me that he came to Friends, and stayed with Friends, because he deeply appreciated Quakers’ stance on various social and political issues, which gave him an outlet for the kind of witness and action which was the center of his life.

I don’t know how to deal with this difference. Whatever winds your watch, I guess. Whatever floats your boat. For me, silent prayer is great, and I can never get enough of it. (When I go on retreat, I often spend several days with the Trappist monks, who have been practicing silent prayer for the last 1,000 years or so.)

Other Quakers (not all of them programmed Friends) seem to have a much lower appetite for silence. An earlier generation called them “fast Friends” because they were ready to end the quiet time much more quickly. I don’t think they’re wrong, or unspiritual. I don’t think it’s a matter of education, or acclimatization, or appreciation for silence. These Friends are equally wonderful, love God, and are devoted to serving their fellow human beings. They’re not “second class Quakers” in any sense.

A large part of my ministry has been spent building bridges between Friends who want more quiet worship, and Friends who are happy with much less. I feel at home and at ease in both groups, and I’m sensitive to the different theologies which each group tends to hold dear, which flow from their different ways of worship.

I’m still convinced that we belong to each other as Friends, that it’s not just our name and our common roots which keep us together. I wish we could stop hacking at each other, denying each other, and anathematizing each other, and simply realize that not everyone is the same – but that God calls us together, even though we’re different.

What do you think?

Business and Busy-ness

All too easily, we forget the distinction. Business is what we’re supposed to be doing. Busy-ness is what we all too often do. There’s a difference.

Our “business” may be our daily work or employment. It may be buying and selling, or providing a service. It may be caring for our family. It might be a deeply-held spiritual or social concern. It might be spending time in prayer, or taking time off to think about something. According to the dictionary, business is what “engages our time, attention or labor as a principal serious concern or interest.”

Busy-ness, on the other hand, is what we fill our time with. It’s all the fluff and distraction, the non-essential nonsense that takes the place of the real business of our lives.

Much of our culture is built on busy-ness. We’re flooded with ads, with appeals, with news and sports, with opportunities, all designed to distract us from what is really meaningful or vital. Does it really matter who won the Emmy awards? Will this new deodorant really bring us lots of friends? Does Miller Beer really make life worth living? Will today’s news really change the course of world history, or will we still face the same challenges tomorrow?

It may not matter that our children are always freshly scrubbed; it may be more important that we spend time with them. It doesn’t matter that our lawns are the most weed-free on the block; it’s more important that our homes be friendly and inviting. Getting a promotion or moving up the corporate ladder don’t always mean that we’re doing our job well, or that we’re even doing the right job at all.

We use busy-ness to tell ourselves and other people how important we are. We use it to shield ourselves from uncomfortable truths we know in our hearts. Busy-ness lets us pretend that we’re doing all we can, because our time is filled. As a friend of mine put it, “Maybe if we keep busy doing lots of things all the time, God won’t catch us in our emptiness…”

Boredom, depression, desperation and frustration can all be signs that what we’re doing isn’t what we’re meant to do. Busy-ness should remind us that something inside us is deeply wrong. Dropping some of our busy activities may be painful. The alternative, though, is to wake up to the fact that we’ve wasted our lives.

It isn’t always easy to draw the distinction between business and busy-ness. An active person may have a deeply centered inner life, or their outward activity may hide an inward hollowness of heart. A person who appears to be idle, or who does seemingly humble or useless things, may actually be doing important work.

Prayer is an important tool for separating business from busy-ness. Quiet prayer times offer the opportunity to look over our lives and see whether our lives are filled, or simply busy. A few hints:

• When we’re doing the real business God has given us, it feels like freedom; busy-ness always winds up feeling like slavery or bondage.

• God supplies our needs to accomplish our real business; with busy-ness, there is never enough.

• Doing God’s business always leads to trust in God; busy-ness is always accompanied by anxiety.

• Discovering our real business results from hearing Jesus say, “Follow me...” Busy-ness results from ignoring God.

The challenge is always for us to be doing the business of God. Our daily lives, our employment, our recreation, the way we raise our families, our worship, our spiritual disciplines and testimonies — all these are God’s business. Prayer, reflection and discussion will show us whether we’re doing things God’s way, or our own way.


Opening the doors

A lot of Quaker meetinghouses are pretty old, and mostly we love them. We enjoy the sense of history and connectedness to the past, and many meetings spend a great deal of time and effort preserving their buildings and keeping them as “authentic” as possible.

Quakers also don’t like to spend money – many meetinghouses were built when they had a lot more members, and when there were many fewer demands on our funds. Some Quakers also think that it’s “unspiritual” to spend money on buildings, when there are so many important causes and ministries out there asking for help.

So, we tend not to spend money on updating our buildings. “It was good enough 50 or 100 years ago, it’s good enough now.”

This means that many Quaker meetinghouses aren’t well adapted for full use by people with various abilities. They have too many stairs, bathrooms which are impossible to get in and out of, doors that are too narrow, cupboards and shelves which are out of reach. At worship, few meetinghouses provide inviting space for wheelchair users. People with limited hearing often complain they can’t follow what speakers are saying. Most meetings don’t even have large-print hymnals and Bibles for worship!

More important, many meetings have what I call an “attitude barrier”. It’s simply too much trouble to make changes to accommodate people with different abilities – even if they know these folks want to come and participate! Instead of stretching their imagination and resources to be open, many meetings just can’t be bothered.

For the last 20 years, the meeting where I work (West Richmond Friends) has been working to make our meetinghouse, our worship and all of our programs as fully accessible as possible. Some of the things we’ve done have been expensive, but most of the changes have been in our attitude.

  • Our new elevator, installed in 2006, makes it easy for people to get to both the main floor and the lower level. We chose an entrance under the archway between the meetinghouse and the Friends School next door, so that cars can load and unload under cover from the weather. Greeters are always available on Sunday to help operate the elevator and assist people who need help.
  • Most people who need a wheel chair bring their own, but we also have extra wheel chairs available to move people around on either level of the building – if someone gets tired, for example.
  • We created “parking spots” in our worship room so wheelchair users don’t feel crowded. Each parking spot also has a rack which hold both of our two hymnals, a Bible, pencils and 3×5 cards for taking notes. A table near the entrance to the worship room holds large-print Bibles, hymnals and bulletins, as well as the special hearing system which captures and amplifies what’s said during worship.
  • We have one ADA-compliant accessible rest room, and this summer we’re converting a second. All bathrooms in the building also have grab rails installed for safety.
  • Sermons on tape are available for most worship services; many sermons are also posted on our web site. Worship bulletins are also mailed regularly to homebound Friends who ask for them.
  • Walkers, commodes, canes and other equipment are available for long or short-term loan. These are donated by families and individuals.
  • In the meetinghouse kitchen, we’ve set up a special drawer at knee level, which holds a few dishes, cups and table ware. This is so Friends in wheelchairs don’t have to ask for help or wait when they need these things at a potluck meal.

These are just a few examples of things we’ve done, and our meeting is always looking for new ways to be more accessible and inviting.

The elevator was expensive – it cost about $42,000 when it was installed 8 years ago. Some Friends questioned whether it would be used enough to make it worthwhile. We’ve been surprised by how many new people have come to our meeting (and stayed!) because of the effort we’ve made. The elevator is used at least 10-15 times every week. If it lasts for 30 years (and it will probably last much longer than that) it will work out to about $25 a week – a small price to pay for making our worship and our building fully accessible.

More important than the money, though, has been our meeting’s across-the-board change of attitude. We’re not being condescendingly generous – we recognize that we need these folks in our meeting! We want to be open to everyone, and we’ll make whatever changes are needed to include these Friends in all parts of our worship and program.

My favorite Quaker quotes

Hello again — I’ve been “off the air” and haven’t posted for a while. I thought I would share some of my favorite classic Quaker quotations of all time.

Quakers are highly quotable, and Friends have always enjoyed saving and sharing these great snippets and one-liners with each other. I’m sure I have missed some of your favorites — feel free to post them in your comments.

  1. “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness: and in that also I saw the infinite love of God…” – George Fox
  2. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?…” – George Fox
  3. “There is that near you which will guide you. O, wait for it, and be sure to keep to it…” – Isaac Penington
  4. “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.” – Isaac Penington
  5. “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself…” – James Nayler
  6. “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” – London Yearly Meeting
  7. “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers…” – William Penn
  8. “A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it…let us then try what love will do…” – William Penn
  9. “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but for that reason it should be most our care to learn it…” – William Penn
  10. “…the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us form a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons…” 1660 Declaration to King Charles II
  11.  “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other…but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation…” – Edward Burrough
  12. “For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up…” – Robert Barclay
  13.  “…to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives…” – John Woolman
  14. “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again…” – Stephen Grellet
  15. “You are never tempted by a devil without you, but by a devil within you…” – Elias Hicks
  16. “It is an honor to appear on the side of the afflicted…” – Elizabeth Fry
  17. “I give myself this advice: Do not fear truth, let it be ever so contrary to inclination and feeling. Never give up the search after it; and let me take courage, and try from the bottom of my heart to do that which I believe truth dictates, if it lead me to be a Quaker or not…” – Elizabeth Fry
  18. “Those who go forth ministering to the wants and necessities of their fellow beings experience a rich return, their souls being as a watered garden, and a spring that faileth not…” – Lucretia Mott
  19. “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” – Lucretia Mott
  20. “Has a separation ever caused more people to hear the Gospel? Ever enlarged the Church? Ever shown to the world more of the gentleness and meekness of Christ? Has a separation ever caused the world to exclaim, `See how those Christians love one another?'” – Allen Jay


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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