This is an unofficial, personal epistle from the sixth annual gathering of Christ-centered Friends in the Northeast, which took place over Labor Day Weekend. I started writing it from my bedroom on the last night of our stay at Powell House, intending to send it to everyone who’d expressed regret at not being able to attend, and also to everyone else who I thought would want to know how it had gone. I’ll be posting this letter on the blog “among Friends” to give it maximum circulation. Although I served as Clerk of the gathering’s planning group, let me repeat that this letter has no official status as a statement from the gathering or its planners, but is just what is on this one Friend’s heart to share with the world.
The theme for the gathering, “Abide in Me,” from Jesus’ Vine Sermon (John 15:4), was chosen last Winter. As our planning group worked on developing a program for the weekend over a series of conference calls, we became clear on two things: (1) that we’d be trying to relate our discussion to participants’ personal experiences of “dwelling in” or “being indwelt by” Christ the Vine, and (2) that we’d be flexible in our planning, not adopting a rigid schedule in advance, in order to let the Holy Spirit guide our sequence of activities as much as we could. I think that the interest in personal experiences (1) served to help me (and, I hope, others) stay focused on my living connection to Christ, avoiding airy notions or unprofitable light conversation during the weekend, and that the intentional flexibility of programming (2) was what allowed the two evening prayer sessions to happen. These proved to be the high points of my weekend.
We had twenty-five participants – fewer than in prior years when we’d met at Powell House. As often happens, some came late and some left early, but for most of the programmed events we had about twenty-two. Four came from the New England Yearly Meeting area, two from elsewhere, and the rest from the New York Yearly Meeting area. Each, on arrival, got a printed sheet with John 15:1-11 on it, in the New Revised Standard Version. Sixth-day evening was largely given over to dinner, introductions and waiting worship. The vocal ministry we heard, I thought, was reflective of the concerns we were bringing with us – like “are we called to be Christian Quakers or to think of ourselves as Quaker Christians?”
On Seventh-day morning we considered the simple phrase “Abide in Me” in plenary session, then proceeded into an hour and a half of waiting worship. There was considerable vocal ministry, but none arresting, I thought, until the three messages that came right at the end. The Friend who’d suggested the “Abide in Me” theme spoke of having invited Jesus Christ to abide in him, and three times being asked, “Are you sure you want this?” The last Friend to give ministry broke into deep vocal prayer that seemed to expose his very heart. I could now be optimistic that the Holy Spirit was bringing us closer.
After lunch we labored. We discussed the first eleven verses of the Vine Sermon in small groups (“Where does the text touch your life now? Was there a time in your life when this ‘abiding’ was harder?”), and then in another plenary session. There at least one Friend expressed fear of the possibility of being found to be an “unfruitful branch” and cast into the fire. Another argued for the positive, hopeful thrust of the Vine Sermon as a whole, and against the existence of a God who might damn anyone. A third spoke of his earlier life as a liar, seducer, thief and self-glorifier, a life and character that he gladly surrendered to be trashed as an unfruitful branch after he’d found himself given a new, repentant heart and a new life in Christ – a gamut of personal experience that made both the promising and the threatening aspects of the “vine” metaphor apt without implying any expectation of a condemnation of any sentient being to everlasting fire. Both fear of God and trust in God were displayed among us, but by God’s grace we weren’t being polarized into believers in hell and disbelievers in hell, but rather gathered, I’d like to think, as a body of God-fearing, God-trusting God-lovers who could all speak to something in one another’s souls. And God – God was God. God loved us, and knew best what to do with us.
That evening we broke into prayer-groups of five or six each. My group quickly went deep into confessions of personal need and heartfelt concern for loved ones. Three of us dropped to our knees on one side of the parlor coffee table and joined hands. One was trembling as she prayed, and remained trembling. Aware of the intensity of others’ experience, I said “Amen” to every petition I heard, but felt strangely cool and neutral inwardly myself, until, at the end, I began to speak for my own yearnings, praying first for my own immediate family and then, as I warmed inwardly, for the whole fear-driven, war-torn, ignorance-darkened world.
Seventh-day night saw an “extracurricular” gathering in the library to discuss discipleship and disciple-making. That deserves a separate letter, and so I’ll pass over it in this report; perhaps you’ll hear about it from someone else.
In First-day morning’s meeting for worship, my wife Elizabeth broke into quaking, a first for her, as she gave vocal ministry on the topic of the Word made flesh, in Christ and in our deeds. Another Friend, bidden by the Holy Spirit, prayed in her native language, unfamiliar to the rest of us, for an ailing family member. I sensed a divine covering – but then, not every message seemed Spirit-led, and the meeting “crumbled” – I don’t know how else to describe it – as Friends broke into speaking a second time in a single meeting, addressing one another by name, and making attempts to “fix” a situation gone awry. We’d started to rise, then stumbled and fallen into a slight, but temporary, disorder. Here we broke for lunch and then several hours of free time.
A late-afternoon small-group exercise focused on “pruning the branches” seemed to bring rich insights. The first four verses of John 15 were slowly read aloud, lectio-divina style, and we considered the pruning that had been done to ourselves – or that we saw as needing to be done. A property-owner new to pruning apple trees and grapevines told of being taught that good pruning is severe pruning, and that fruit trees send shoots upward, but orchard-keepers want them to grow mostly outward and sideways. Another Friend shared the insight that God does not prune once, but continues to prune, giving us just enough stress at any one time as we can take. Another Friend reminded us of our importance to the ongoing work of Christ by observing that the Vine only produces fruit through its branches. One countered our habit of thinking of ourselves solely as individuals by warning that if we neglect our daily practice, we impoverish our meeting. And I? I saw much that I could be pruned of, and found myself welcoming the shears. They might scare me as they grew closer, but I trusted the Lord to give me whatever courage I might need.
The planning group decided that the best thing we could do with the evening ahead of us would be to have prayer-groups again. This time we split into one group of eight and another of ten. My group, the smaller one, moved off to the parlor. I knelt and prayed aloud that the Lord would gather us, and returned to my seat.
Jim, a former monk, spoke next: “Lord, I offer up this prayer of Saint Ignatius:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more. Amen.”
Jim recalls adding, after Ignatius’s original “my memory [and] my understanding,” “my intuition,” “my imagination,” and “my emotions.” In all, it was quite a comprehensive list, and I prayed to be “naughted” – a Fourteenth-Century term I’d learned from reading Julian of Norwich – in every aspect of my personal experience. I noticed my random thoughts with neither eagerness nor revulsion, recalled that I’d surrendered them to God, and then grew sleepy as the silence lengthened. And then the thought came: I can’t let myself sleep! This prayer group is going to fail if I don’t stay alert! And with that, I knelt again and stayed kneeling, waiting for something… something from within or without.
Then Roger, from across the table, asked whether he could put hands on my shoulders. “Please do,” I answered.
Roger’s hands on my shoulders were soon joined by Jim’s hands on my head. And then Jim started to chant the plainsong Salve Regina in his serene old voice. He was calling on the Virgin Mary for help. I was grateful. I rarely think of asking her or any other holy person for help, punctilious monotheist that I am, although I’ve sensed her presence alongside me in prayer once or twice before. With Mary and Jesus invoked, Elizabeth at my side, Roger and Jim touching me, and other loving presences around the table, I felt sweetly and solemnly held. There was a little pulsing of energy in the field around my crown, something that I sometimes take as a sign of a visitation by the Holy Spirit.
Jim’s voice sang on: Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes, in hac lacrimarum valle. I understood the Latin: To thee we sigh, groaning and weeping in this valley of tears. It may have been that the thought came to me in an unfamiliar language, sneaking up on my emotions from beneath, that brought tears into my chest, or it may have been that they were sung rather than spoken: but there those tears were, and I sensed I was ready to pray from them, though I didn’t know where it would lead. When Jim was done singing, I spoke again, in tears that grew to a torrent of sobbing:
“Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Holy Spirit, Lord Jesus: we are in trouble, bigger trouble than we know: but You know. We, Your children, are fallen, fallen away from You to where we can’t see or feel You, and we’re behaving in a way that’s destroying the earth before our own eyes. We see it, but we can’t stop ourselves. And we’re doing it because we’re in bondage to a great lie. All of us! The oppressors and the oppressed alike, we’ve put ourselves in bondage, we’ve invited the Father of Lies to be our master, and we can’t see it! We’ve enslaved ourselves to habits, cultures, world-views, organizations, and insane loyalties to false gods that are now working together to destroy all life on this planet, with war, with racism and hatred, with deceit and denial, with runaway overconsumption of things that can’t satisfy, and yet we keep guzzling them down to fill our emptiness! Our destruction of the environment is merely an outward sign of our inward sickness! – and because it’s not quite burning us up quite yet, we’re able to keep ourselves blind to the fact, or we look to scapegoating and mutual blaming as a solution, which will prove to be no solution, because the problem is us! Because it’s we who’ve wandered away from the good way that was Your holy will, which was what was best for all creation and every creature in it. It was we who thought that we might create a better reality, and enjoy a better freedom, if we each pursued a separate will and served ourselves instead of one another! – which was madness, but we called it wisdom, and we refused to listen to Your guidance, guidance that would call us back to serving the One Good Will and so restoring the creation to health! And now we’re stuck in this bondage, unable to get out of it so long as we’re in denial of it, shackled into our chains while the world around us catches fire and all around us is burning! Help us, Lord! In Jesus’ holy name, help us! Amen!”
Emptied at last of tears and words, I rose from my knees with Elizabeth’s help and returned to my seat, At last, I thought, I’d felt, on an emotional level, the enormity of the sin, the madness, the all-consuming evil that I’d spent the last month writing about.
After a pause, Emily spoke from the other side of Jim: “Thank God for John, because when I look at the world I see love, and happiness, and people smiling at one another! And I know that his vision is true, but I know that my vision is also true!”
It was a wonderful, healing affirmation of what I’d been carrying. What could I feel but gratitude? And I knew that her sunnier vision of this human world was also true, and needed to be expressed, too – and this was why both of us were needed.
On Second-day morning, the planning group decided that we’d done all we were meant to with the text of John 15, and we did some threshing by geographical divisions – putting Friends from New Paltz on southward into one room and Friends to the North, East, and West of that into another, to discuss possibilities of regional networks and gatherings. We followed that with an hour of waiting worship, and then a business session to decide whether we’d try to create a seventh Northeastern Christ-centered Friends’ gathering, or merely regional gatherings – or what.
During the waiting worship, a Friend confessed to having held back a message on the previous day. He recited from Revelation 2:1-5: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works;” our original love for God having cooled, we can no longer do the works that that love once inspired: we must return to the heights we fell from.
In the brief business session that followed, we saw that there lacked the energy to plan for another Labor Day Weekend gathering in 2015. A Friend from downstate announced that they’d be hosting front-lawn barbecues on all the three-day weekends of the next Summer. Another Friend informed us that Quaker Spring would be gathering next Sixth Month (6/26-7/1) at Oakwood School in Poughkeepsie, and because our gathering would draw from much the same population and resources, he suggested that we think of Tenth or Eleventh Month as a better time for us to re-gather than Labor Day Weekend. With that in mind, we released Powell House from having to hold Labor Day Weekend 2015 open for us on its calendar, though further discernment may cause us to revisit the possibility of gathering on Labor Day Weekend. We created a Discernment Committee to consider possible dates and places for our re-gathering. Once we’ve had our first conference call, the committee should report back to Friends.
Our business concluded, we went to lunch, had last conversations and prayer-gatherings, and then went our separate ways.
In friendship to you all,