Archive for the 'Springfield Friends' Category

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.

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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.

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.

The elevator speech

Within 30 minutes of my last post, several people wrote to me and asked, “What is an elevator speech? What do you say in it?”

OK, back to basics – an elevator speech is short enough for you to give in a typical elevator ride. If you look this topic up on the Internet, elevator speeches are supposed to be no more than 30 seconds, typically 80-100 words. I cheat, probably because I spend a lot of time in slow-moving hospital elevators, so mine is about 2 minutes long. But you get the idea.

My Quaker elevator speech is short, friendly, informative and inviting. I’ve given it hundreds of times. Depending on what the person I’m talking with is interested in, it can include any of the following points:

  • Quakers are a Protestant group. We’ve been around for almost 400 years.
  • The Quaker meeting I work with is one of the oldest churches in the area – we got started 3 years before the Declaration of Independence.
  • Quakers were the first church to say that you couldn’t be a member and keep slaves. We helped to run the Underground Railroad.
  • Quakers have women ministers. We’ve been doing that for almost 400 years, too.
  • Quakers are really interested in peace. A lot of Quakers are conscientious objectors. We also do a lot of positive work for peace.
  • Quakers like to pray quietly. The world today is a noisy place. Quiet prayer helps us feel closer to God.

Depending on the situation, who I’m talking with, or in answer to a question, I may also go on with:

  • Yes, most Quakers identify themselves as Christians.
  • No, we don’t all dress like the guy on the Quaker Oats box.
  • Quakers have a special interest in Native Americans.
  • No, we’re not Amish. But we’re sort of like cousins.

I may ask about Quakers they’ve heard about, like William Penn or Susan B. Anthony. Here in this area of North Carolina, I often talk with people about Allen Jay.

During the elevator speech, I never use Quaker jargon. EVER.

Before saying goodbye, I always say something like:

  • It’s been nice talking with you!
  • Come visit us at worship – that’s the best way to get to know us.
  • Do you use the internet? Check us out at springfieldfriends.org.

Make up your own version of the elevator speech — whatever you feel comfortable about saying. Try it out on people, and tweak it now and then. Don’t argue, don’t put down other religious groups or make bad comparisons, don’t be negative. Be friendly and inclusive. Most people will be interested in things which are distinctive, but will repel off anything they think is weird. Always thank people for being interested, and always invite them to come to meeting, or visit your meeting’s web site.

That’s the elevator speech.

Out in the parking lot

It’s amazing how many people come by our meetinghouse every day, and how different they all are. There are the folks from the meeting, of course, who come to the office to see me, or to drop things off or pick things up. There are tradespeople who come to work on the copier, or inspect the fire extinguishers, or deliver packages. But there are lots of other people who come in the drive but never enter the meetinghouse.

There’s the photographer from a nearby architect’s office, for example. At least once or twice a week he pulls in and parks during lunch hour. He told me he likes it because it’s quiet, and he can eat his sandwich and listen to the birds and read his Bible in the middle of the day.

Then there are the police who often park right behind the brick gateway. Our meetinghouse sits at the top of a hill with a road curving down below, and it’s tempting for drivers to go speeding past. Our parking lot is a good place for the police to have a speed trap during the day, or for two patrol cars to meet for a coffee break in the evening. I often see them when I’m out walking the dog, and they roll down their window to visit.

A surprising number of people pull into the Springfield Friends parking lot to stop and make cell phone calls, or send text messages. Especially on Saturdays, I often see two cars pull in, the doors open, and one or two children walk from one car to the other – probably exchanging the children for weekend custody visits. Those always make me sad.

There’s a large historic cemetery next to our meetinghouse – the oldest graves go back to the late 1700’s – and we often get visitors who are tracing their family on the gravestones. They’re easy to spot because they almost always carry cameras and notebooks, and they apologize for coming by. I often help them find the place they’re interested in, using the excellent guidebook prepared by the Springfield Memorial Association, and a lot of the time the family wants to buy a copy.

One day, a pickup truck pulled in and parked right outside my office window. The driver got out, left the door open, and came around so that the truck screened him from the road. He proceeded to strip down to his underwear, wiped himself down with a washcloth and some bottled water, and put on clean clothes – he obviously thought no one was here, and he needed to change for a meeting or an interview.

The pedestrians are even more interesting than the cars. We have a lot of immigrants in our neighborhood, and every afternoon two older Pakistani women come walking up Elva Place from their home 200 yards away. They’re clearly getting their daily exercise and our meetinghouse is the turnaround point. They’re very shy and always turn back before I can greet them.

When we first moved here, there was a gaunt older woman with the high cheekbones and piercing eyes that said she came from the mountains, wearing a ragged dress and worn-out shoes, who walked past every afternoon. She said her doctor told her to walk 2 miles every day for her heart, so she would go twice around the large block made by Springfield Road, Brentwood, Fairfield and Bellemeade. Then one day she stopped coming, and I never found out what happened to her. I hope it was because she was able to move in with family, or find a better place to live.

Then there’s a very young African-American mother, still in her teens, who walks past pushing her baby in a stroller. We always smile and greet each other, and I always ask how the baby’s coming along, which earns me an extra grin.

It’s surprising how many people in the neighborhood don’t know who we are – one person told me she’s lived here all her life and thought we might be a church, but the sign said “Friends Meeting” and she didn’t know what that was.

We don’t interact nearly enough with the people in our neighborhood, and I think that’s true of most Friends meetings in other places as well. We come here on Sunday to worship, and occasionally for other gatherings, but we seldom talk with our neighbors, who live nearby and see our building every day.

This year we put up a new sign with 8-inch letters which can be changed easily, and we started putting up different messages each week. The new sign has drawn a lot of attention, and it’s even started a friendly marquee rivalry with the Methodist church down the street – a group we didn’t interact with before.

Several times a year our meeting holds big fundraising dinners which draw 200-300 people – a barbecue, a gigantic fish fry, a chili cook-off. Those are great, but the visitors seldom come back on Sunday morning. More recently, we’ve invited a local gospel group to come and sing during the dinner – here in North Carolina, the combination of gospel music and pork barbecue is nearly irresistible.

For much of our history, Quakers frowned on making a big deal of public holidays. But last year for the Christmas season, we put electric candles in all the windows of our meetinghouse facing the road, which drew a lot of attention. People slowed down to enjoy the lovely lights in the evening, and the lights also brightened their day in the dark of early morning as they went off to work or to school.

One of our members is trying to organize a Spanish Bible study here at the meetinghouse, and classes in English to help the new families in the neighborhood adjust to living here. Another member wants to start a 12-step group, which may not make our meeting grow right away on Sunday morning, but it’s a great ministry for us to support.

Growth is always tied to outreach – on the web, on the street, in the community, in the neighborhood. Quakers are a pretty introverted bunch – we need to shake loose and interact with the people who are all around us. It’s not enough to have a good write-up in the history books – we need to make history in our own generation, and find fresh ways to minister and witness to the love and light of God.

It IS different here!

My wife and I moved to North Carolina last fall after many years of living and working with Quakers in Indiana, the Adirondacks, and New England. Quick take: it’s a little different here.

I’d been impressed for many years by the Friends from North Carolina who showed up at FUM Board meetings. Their gentleness, discernment, good humor and dedication made me wonder what it would be like to live and work there.

North Carolina culture – both in general and among Quakers – is different. The accent is definitely Southern, but it’s far from what people from the rest of the U.S. think of as Southern. It’s a soft accent, easy on the ears.

People use old-fashioned words in everyday conversation – yonder, young ‘un, y’all (I quickly learned that “y’all” is singular, while “all y’all” is plural). You don’t turn off the A/C, you cut it off. There’s a big difference between the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Triad (High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem).

When I made an unworkable suggestion to the head of the House and Grounds committee, he turned me down with a smile, saying, “That dog won’t hunt”. Dinner is still the noontime meal here, supper is what you eat at sundown. The standard everyday greeting here is “Hey!”, used to and by people of all ages.

There’s a difference between “fixin’” (getting ready to do something) and “fixin’s” (the side dishes of pinto beans, slaw, biscuits, fries, etc. which accompany a meal). “Right quick” means pretty soon – maybe in an hour, maybe next week, maybe later this year, depending on circumstances. But “directly” means right now, immediately, no fooling around, no side trips or stopping to chat with friends (“Y’all come home directly!”)

One of my favorite phrases here is “might could”, which expresses just the right amount of possibility or indecision in any situation. “Do you aim to go to the mountains next weekend?” “Might could, if the car don’t break down.”

Respect is a big part of the culture in North Carolina. I have never been called “sir” so many times before in my life, often several times in a single sentence. I strongly suspect that children in North Carolina get whomped upside the head by their parents for not using “sir” or “ma’am”. It takes some getting used to, especially since I always thought that Quakers didn’t use titles.

Many people are addressed by both their first and middle names – and it’s astonishing how many people here have “Lee” as a middle name. Quite a few women are addressed by their middle name, usually a treasured family name, whether or not the middle name is typically female. Some women are often called “Miss Ruby” or “Miss Helen”, which can indicate a) age b) status c) love and respect d) all of the above, and has nothing to do with whether they are or ever have been married.

People here still pull over to the side of the road whenever a funeral procession goes by. Cemeteries are meticulously maintained, with flowers changed regularly several times each year. Even though Baptists make up a very large percentage of churchgoers, they come in for a good deal of kidding – people here tell Baptist jokes in the same way people told Polish jokes and Italian jokes when I was growing up in Buffalo.

There’s also a great deal more publicly expressed faith here – the first week we were here, we were startled to have the check-out clerk at the supermarket, the cashier at the bank, the attendant at the gas station and the waiter at the restaurant all say, “Have a blessed day!” I’m not sure who’s teaching people to say this, but it’s nearly universal.

“Bless your heart” is different – it can be used in a straightforward and warmly sentimental way, but it’s also used with irony to suggest that the person being blessed is slightly stupid. “Special” can also be a put-down, depending on the emphasis given by the speaker. “Isn’t that special?” can be a real zinger.

Food is a big deal here (isn’t it everywhere?) and in North Carolina the staples are sweet tea and barbecue. I find sweet tea almost cloyingly sweet and usually opt for ice water – another local alternative is a carbonated beverage called Cheerwine (similar to Cherry Coke).

Barbecue is something people here love to compare and argue about endlessly. Old-timers swear it’s best cooked over a hickory fire (even though 90% of restaurants now use an electric oven). Here in the Triad, they favor a vinegar-based sauce, and scorn the ketchup-based sauce preferred in the eastern part of the state. Last week, one of the elders of the meeting took me to his favorite barbecue place, Speedy’s in Lexington. He worships there at least once a week, and claims it’s the best in the whole state.

Fried chicken runs a close second to barbecue in the hearts (and appetites) of people from North Carolina. Home-made is best, but Bojangles is a favorite place for families to take their kids after meeting on Sunday.

Other North Carolina foods to try include pimento cheese (used as a dip or as a sandwich spread), hush puppies (cornbread mixed with grated onion and deep fried), nabs (snack packs of peanut butter crackers, originally made by Nabisco), ‘maters (fresh tomatoes) and of course Krispy Kremes (freshly made doughnuts with an almost toxic level of sugar).

It sounds as though my first impressions of North Carolina mainly revolve around food, and you’re right. People here love to eat! Almost every conceivable occasion involves food, often jokingly referred to as Quaker communion. The standard meal at the meetinghouse is a “carry-in” (known to Midwest Quakers as a “pitch-in” and Quakers in most other parts of the U.S. as a “potluck”).

The old ways of speech and the old culture have been affected by the hordes of people who have moved to North Carolina from out of state, attracted by the climate, jobs or the more rural atmosphere. It saddens me to see the old ways fading, and to meet kids who have never heard the lovely, haunting ballads of the Appalachians which I’ve learned and shared for years.

For generations, the economy of this area centered around furniture, textiles and tobacco. All three have taken major blows in the last few years. During the Reconstruction, a couple of Quaker families started a small factory making chairs. This grew and grew until High Point, North Carolina became the furniture-making capital of the entire country.

Today, much of the manufacturing has shifted to China, and many of the remaining jobs are taken by immigrants from Mexico and Pakistan (at the Allen Jay Elementary School, the first language of over 50% of the students is Urdu). This fuels a lot of low-key resentment in the community, although Quakers are trying to reach out and start new community ministries.

It’s a different world, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. The Friends here are great, and they’ve accepted me in spite of my ignorance and lack of experience. I’ll post some other impressions as time goes on, but meanwhile, thanks for the welcome!

Welcome to North Carolina

It’s been a while since I last wrote on this blog. Since my last post, I’ve moved! I’ve served in several different yearly meetings – New England, New York, Indiana and now North Carolina. Each move has meant leaving old friends behind and making new ones, and each new ministry has a huge learning curve.

I plan to start posting more frequently again, but meanwhile, thanks to all of the folks at West Richmond Friends Meeting who supported me and my family for 22 years, and thanks to all of the folks at Springfield Friends Meeting in High Point, North Carolina, who have done so much to welcome us!

When a meeting calls a new pastor, there are so many things to learn and unlearn, so many faces to match with names, to many traditions to understand and plans to make. I hope that this thank-you list gives you some ideas about what you can do to welcome and support a new pastor.

Special thanks during the last 8 months to:

  • Millie told me who was sick, who’s related to who, and forgave my many mistakes in the meeting office
  • Tom and Gaither opened their home to us during the first week we were here
  • Donnie got our furnace and A/C working
  • Sandra showed unfailing patience with me on financial matters and invited my wife to Zumba
  • Brockie brought food and sweet tea for everybody unloading the moving van; also shared Christmas trees with us
  • Eldora shared the meeting’s history with me
  • Vivian planted flowers in front of our home
  • Javier brought us tacos and introduced us to our Latino neighbors
  • Jerry shook my hand every week and told me how glad he was that my family and I are here
  • Judith brought us farm-fresh eggs and home-made jam
  • Betty brought us pimento cheese
  • Steve got the leaky roof fixed
  • Janet supported all of the new music I introduced
  • Julia played all of the new music with skill and spirit
  • Donald took me out for barbecue at his favorite restaurant
  • Pat took us to her favorite Christmas show
  • Heather let me hold her dragon
  • Travis and Sarah honored me by asking me to officiate at their wedding
  • Becky sewed weights for the marriage certificate
  • Mike asked us to lunch at his restaurant
  • David spent a whole day with his chainsaw cutting trees at the parsonage
  • Curtis brought us a bushel of pecans
  • Gary brought us a pork shoulder still hot from the barbecue pit
  • Butch put up new signs everywhere
  • Peggy told me every week that she was praying for me
  • George invited us to his favorite gospel groups
  • Kevin and Angie let me hold their newborn baby
  • Jim showed me his pictures from the Second World War
  • Sharon gave us flowers on every possible occasion
  • Rita insisted that I go through the line first at Circle meetings
  • Helen brought a couple of deviled eggs just for me because I complained they were all gone at monthly fellowship lunch
  • Jane shared the wonderful art her husband painted and the pain of her grief
  • Gene helped me carry truckloads of boxes to the dump
  • all the women of the meeting gave us their favorite recipes
  • Barbara showed me the house where she grew up
  • Dwight gave me a kit to build a mandolin
  • Robert made me feel a part of the fish fry crew
  • Ken helped guide my ideas through monthly meeting for business

There are dozens of others I could thank – sorry I couldn’t fit you all in!

Now, just one quick question – what on earth is a Tarheel?


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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