Author Archive

Mystery, Marketing, and the Mess at General Theological Seminary

October 19, 2014 The link is to a blog by Frederick William Schmidt about the conflict at General Theological Seminary in New York City.  In recent weeks, from what I can make out on the Quaker sidelines, several faculty members registered complaints with the Board of Trustees about the dean. Matters got to a point where eight faculty members wrote to the trustees saying that they would stop teaching until matters were resolved. The trustees took this as a letter of resignation from the eight faculty members, accepted it as such, and relieved the eight of their positions on the faculty. The eight faculty members said it was never meant as a resignation. Questions about the right to organize, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and academic freedom are swirling around.

On Friday, October 17, the trustees reaffirmed that the dean was the dean they wanted and the eight faculty members could apply for provisional reinstatement on an individual basis—which I’m told is a classic union-busting technique. I’m posting about this on Among Friends because there are things in Schmidt’s blog and in the comments on his blog that got me thinking about Quaker life and New York Yearly Meeting. For example, Schmidt says that seminaries were created by the Council of Trent to be “seedbeds.”

“Over time, seminaries have become something very different.  They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories. . . . And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, ‘How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?'”

In the last paragraph of his post, Schmidt talks about mystery— “Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose.  If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered.  The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”

Those last two sentences opened to me why effective Quaker religious education is so difficult. How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings? 

I got more explanations—these about yearly meeting life—as I read the comments on Schmidt’s blog. In one by Roy Herndon Smith, I found this— “As Bernard Brandon Scott observes, in any age, the dominant institution in society becomes the model for churches and church-related institutions. In sixteenth-century Europe, the feudal court was the model for the church. In twenty-first century America, the corporation is the model.”

And there we are: the ‘priorities’ models of marketing that New York and Philadelphia yearly meetings (are there others?) adopted this summer. To adapt Schmidt’s quote, I heard my yearly meeting asking of itself: ‘How can we . . . collect [money] in a more efficient fashion?’”

Early Friends witnessed against the feudal court–model of the church and “the dominant institution” of society. Friends today are falling nicely into step with the wisdom to be found in the life of the successful capitalist corporation. In another comment, I learned about Juergen Habermas from someone going by his Twitter handle of frharry. Frharry has a somewhat heavy style that needs a little ear-of-the-heart translating. Bear with it—

“Juergen Habermas spoke of the colonization of the lifeworld by its business quadrant as early as the 1980s. With the political quadrant neutralized, business construction of the lifeworld based in business values of profit and the commodification of all aspects of that world (including its human “resources”) no longer had any checks. As a result, all social institutions and cultural values become colonized, taking on business values and goals. Education becomes knowledge fluency, higher education becomes job training, students become consumers. It is an impoverishment of the lifeworld that ironically sells itself to the public as the best of possible worlds, a la Pangloss. Most of the time we are so voluntarily distracted that we don’t notice.”

I lift up for your attention the concept of becoming colonized, taking on business values and goals.

The mention of Pangloss with its reference to Voltaire’s Candide was especially meaningful to me. As part of the summer’s Priorities business, New York Yearly Meeting Friends are being urged to contribute to the Make Our Garden Grow web page:

I keep wanting to post the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim song there.


Spiritual Loneliness

February 12, 2013

For three years I’ve been attending the meeting that my partner belongs to. It’s a small meeting, about 20 at worship. It’s a big change from the urban meeting I’m a member of, which routinely has 100 people gathered together for unprogrammed worship.

At first I thought I was having trouble shifting from that large, urban meeting, which I found so powerful and where there were often deeply silent meetings, to the small, quiet one in the suburbs. But I’m coming to understand that there is more to my trouble than adjusting to a shift in numbers.

Don’t mistake me. It’s a friendly meeting! I like the people there. Lots of strong individuals who’ve led and are leading interesting lives.  I’m making social friendships. I’ve been warmly welcomed. Community is strong. And there is a real desire in the meeting to make the world a better place, with actions that match that desire. More than a few folks, in a spirit of hospitality, have asked me when I’m transferring my membership out of the city and joining with them officially.

I can’t do it.

This week I was given more insight into why. Even though I’m not a member I’ve been serving on a committee. Over the weekend, we were putting the final touches, via e-mail, on a list of basic books about Quakerism to be ordered from FGC. There were maybe eight or so titles on the list–new stuff from FGC that I haven’t caught up with yet. But there were two classics that I didn’t see on the list: Friends for 350 Years and A Testament of Devotion.

I suggested them.

I was shaken by the e-mails I got back. Several Friends said they had always found Kelly’s language too opaque and daunting. What they could grasp of Kelly didn’t speak to their condition. And Brinton (although one Friend said she personally loved the book) was deemed “not suitable for newcomers.” As one member put it, she found that Brinton told her “more about Quakerism than [she] wanted to know.”

These book-ordering e-mails have proved extremely painful to me. They’ve gone deep. They’ve revealed to me, in an actual way, that these good, caring people and I are not speaking the same language.

This Sunday, I will sit down with them in the meeting room. There will be a lovely fire in the fireplace that the benches are arranged around. In the silence . . . In worship . . . Where are our places of communion? I am filled with a sense of spiritual loneliness. What is it calling me to?

Communion at the Voting Booth

November 4, 2008

I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me in the voting booth.

I’d thought it out carefully. I’d vote around 10:30, after the people who worked in offices had had their morning chance. It was a good plan. My polling place is in the lobby of a high-rise housing project in Manhattan. There are about six electoral districts that vote there. My ED had two voting machines. (There was only one for the primary.) 

Things looked pretty well organized. First you gave a worker your street address, and she told you which ED you were and what table you had to sign in at. That line was my longest wait–but only ten minutes. I was voter number 388. Spirits were high. One family was there with their children, taking them into the voting booth.

The line for the booths was only a few minutes. My card was collected and the machine was set for me by a fiercely focused African American woman who called me “dear” as she held the curtain for me.

I always forget that I have to cock the machine by throwing the big red lever to the right, so at first I couldn’t get the small toggle by Obama’s name to go down. A moment of panic until I remembered the lever thing.

Click, click, click, click, down the list of candidates, my congresswoman, judges, my state assemblyman–an impressive young man I’m happy is running again.

I stood there for a moment looking at what I had done, looking at the toggles that were turned down beside the names and the Xs in the boxes. I felt two things at once. I felt both deeply centered inside myself and standing outside space and time. It was a moment like no other. I took a long breath and swung the big red lever back to the left.

And then I began to sob. Wracking, shaking sobs welling up from that center I’d been inhabiting, as tears poured from my eyes.

I steadied myself against the lever, as I recall, inhaled, and turned to leave the booth. As I pulled the curtain aside, I met the eyes of the woman who had let me into the booth. 

She looked at me. She more than looked at me, she took me in. “Did you do it?” she said. I nodded. She nodded, too.

And the rest of my tears began to flow. Outside the building, in the sun, I leaned against the brick wall and cried some more until I was able to collect myself.

I spent this spring and summer working on Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of African American History from 1896 to the Present(In other words from Plessy v. Ferguson to Mos Def.) I’ve worked on many of OUP’s African American titles in the past ten years. The set is locked down and ready to go to the presses, except for the open sections that an editorial team is waiting to fill in based on what happens today.

I have worked, as I said, on many of these projects, on the biographical dictionaries, on other encyclopedia sets, on the collected works of W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s been a privilege and an honor and so humbling to learn the life stories of so many astounding men and women. But this encyclopedia of events, half of which happened in my lifetime, sunk me deeper and deeper into despair as I absorbed how pervasive and unacknowledged, unseen, and unknown the racism of this country is.

This morning I got to push back at all that. This morning I got to say–despite what I absorbed growing up with de facto segregation in the public schools of Pennsylvania, where the black kids sat in the back row and rode in the back of the bus–No. This is the person who is best for the job. This is the person I want to represent me to the rest of the world.

“Did you do it?” she asked. I nodded.

“A Greater Place to Live”

August 29, 2008

I write this on the evening of August 28, 2008.

It’s the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and my late aunt, Josephine.

On this day, forty-five years ago, I was in summer school at the University of Pennsylvania. We were hearing a lot, in the women’s dorm, about this big march on Washington. We watched clips of it on the network news in the TV lounge that night. I remember seeing speeches . . . and Joan Baez singing.

Eight years earlier, on August 28, 1955, I would have been about to enter seventh grade in Chester County, Pennsylvania. But down in Mississippi on that day, a young black boy named Emmett Till–he was about six months older than me– was being beaten to death. I have no memory of that murder.

I’ve informed myself about it since then. I’d like to give you a YouTube link where you can see some images of Mississippi while you listen to  Bob Dylan’s song about Emmett Till. The last line of the song is the title of this post. (For those with slower modems, the printed lyrics are here.) I felt it necessary to look them up and reread them after I turned off the television tonight. After I’d watched tonight’s speech. After Barack Obama spoke.

I write now, and I don’t understand why I’m not dissolved in tears. Is his gaze holding me steady, I wonder? I couldn’t take my eyes from him. Savior? Celebrity? Another Adlai Stevenson, too smart to be elected president? He looked so vulnerable standing out there on that platform. And he looked so clear about who he is and what he means to do.

I’ve never known this country to be so low–not through the cold war, Korea, or the Vietnam War. Not through Watergate. Not even through Watergate. This is the worst. And yet the young people, the young people (or so I call them) who started and talkingpointsmemo and so many other of the blogs and Web sites I depend on and who are representing me on my own city council and in my state assembly–how did they get so good?

I have no kids of my own. I don’t know. I’ve heard it said that we hippies blew it. Maybe we did. But it’s beginning to look to me like some of us parented a generation that’s taking charge. Could they have possibly taken us at our word?

“The system’s broken,” we said in the Sixties. “Everything’s got to change.”

That’s what I heard tonight.

Here’s the text.

This is for my cousins, my aunt Josephine’s granddaughters, Jennifer and soon-to-be-born Baby Girl, Susan and year-old Sailor, and Sarah, and their husbands Rob, Giles, and Ben; and for Josephine’s grandson Jonathan and for her two grandkids, Ben and Marisa, who will be voting in the next presidential election.

Quilting for Kenya on eBay

August 26, 2008
The quilt made by Iowa Quakers

The quilt made by Iowa Quakers

I just got the following e-mail from Ann Nichols in Iowa. It looks like a beautiful quilt, and I thought you’d like to know about it. It’s an interesting idea to fund-raise on eBay.

Ann Nichols displays the “Out of Africa” quilt which will be auctioned to raise funds to support a nurse at the Kaimosi Friends Mission Hospital in Kenya, Africa. The multi-colored fabric in the quilt is African fabric donated by Eden Grace, of Friends United Meeting (FUM) Field Staff serving in their Africa Ministries Office in Kisumu, Kenya.

The quilt, a mission project of United Society of Friends’ Women, was made by women from five Iowa Friends’ Meetings:  Bangor Liberty, Hartland, Honey Creek-New Providence, LeGrand, and Marshalltown First Friends.

The “Out of Africa” quilt will be auctioned on eBay in mid-September.  The ten-day auction will end September 26 with the auction proceeds donated to the Adopt-a-Nurse Program for Kaimosi Hospital.

To learn more about the quilt and see it on auction, go to after September 16 and search for “African Fabric Houndstooth Quilt.”

You Win Some, You Lose Some

August 10, 2008

Well, ‘Father Jake Stops the World’ has closed down (as posted previously). But I just checked in with Geoffrey Chaucer Has a Blog and found that it’s been taken over by a team consisting of the Lords Appellant of England because of the many complaints that Geoffrey wasn’t posting enough. They have announced their intentions to keep a close eye on the media and on fashions and trends.

Indeed, I was delighted to find there were several posts to catch up on–not to mention a daunting number of comments.

Good news for all of us devoted to Middle English blogging!

‘Father Jake Stops the World’ Stops

July 3, 2008

As the FUM Triennial approaches I have been somewhat aware, through the pressure of my editing deadlines, of the continuing struggle in the Anglican Church. I also saw the news (but didn’t study it) that the assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has voted to ordain non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy and will now go through a year-long process of having its individual congregations ratify the decision–or not.

Thinking to catch up on some of this news before I leave for the Triennial on July 8, I checked into ‘Father Jake’ after a long hiatus and found, in a post dated July 2, that Jake is closing down his blog. I’m sad about that, but Jake sounds clear and rightly led in his decision.

I encourage you to explore the site before Jake takes it down. There are many, many links on it to interesting and informative sites. And there are some thought-provoking essays.

These are the words from Father Jake that I want to take away with me:

Am I abandoning the struggle? Some might see it that way. But, as I’ve said before, even though there are most likely many more difficult years ahead of us, I am no longer as concerned about the end result as I once was. In the long run, there is simply no way that the extremist perspective will become the dominant one within Anglicanism or Christianity. Their exclusive view, which insists on separating humanity into groups of “us” and “them,” simply cannot survive in a world in which we are all becoming more and more connected each day. A global perspective will not tolerate their kind of elitist mentality. Nor will such a perspective tolerate the same kind of rhetoric here. So, I think it is time for me to do the responsible thing.

Yes, we must continue to speak out against those who will use the name of God to oppress and imprison the innocent. But, it seems to me, that cannot be our sole focus.

The Pews Forum survey still has me reflecting. 92% of Americans believe in God. That is astounding! We’ve got some great conversations just waiting to happen beyond the walls of the Church. For me, at least, I think it is time to end this focus on internal squabbles, and begin to look outward.

As I prepare to leave the FUM board on July 13 after representing New York Yearly Meeting for six years, I am wondering what looking outward will mean. I know that I am burned out. And I know that I am to take a sabbatical from New York Yearly Meeting.

Great conversations waiting to happen beyond the Church walls . . . .


Periodontal Angels

June 30, 2008

I haven’t been feeling very aware of my angels recently. Intellectually, I know they’re there. (For one thing, there have been some events that were bad, but could have been a lot worse–like a fall I took June 8.) But I haven’t been feeling their presence within myself.
Last week, however, they broke through (or I did). I was in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the dentist to come in to check to see if I’d been able to turn my periodontal issues around after three weeks of following the protocol he’d given me. I was, of course, nervous. I knew things were better, but I didn’t know if they were better enough.
As I waited, staring out his eighteenth-floor window across the green treetops of my beloved Central Park, I suddenly felt the angels standing on either side of me and putting one of their hands on each side of my jaw. Then they began to waft their wings quietly and gently, and I had the very clear sense that they were drawing the toxins out of my jaw and sending them out into the air behind them with the waving of their wings, pumping the alien stuff away from me.
The dentist came in and examined me and said (quote), “What you’ve done is spectacular.”
To his face, I accepted the compliment, but I thanked the angels, because we know who did what.
My angels send greetings to yours.

Buttered Dirt

May 1, 2008

I learned, last week, that the cost of holding Meeting for Worship in the two big meetinghouses in New York City is $1,000 apiece each Sunday.

A few days later, I saw James Mates reporting from Haiti on PBS’s Newshour that despairing parents were feeding their children buttered dirt.

I am not saying close the meetinghouses and send the money to feed children.

I am troubled . . . and waiting. 




What Meeting for Worship Costs

April 25, 2008

No. This is not a post about how faithful attendance at worship will change your life and cause you to renounce things that you never thought you’d be able to live without–although I’ve known that to happen. 

This is a post about money.

A few days ago, in a daily e-mail I get from, I learned about Faith in Action Sunday on April 27. A project of World Vision, Outreach, Inc., and Zondervan–

Faith in Action is designed to be a step toward alleviating the complacency that is afflicting churches across the country, and an effective call to action to follow Christ’s example of compassion.

The project culminates on April 27, when the participating churches–instead of holding worship services–will close their doors and send their members out to work in their communities in service to the poor.

The report on Faith in Action Sunday from Ekklesia says:

Current data provided by the US Census Bureau reveals the national poverty level has increased from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 13.3 percent in 2005, or 38 million Americans.

Additionally, demand for food stamps between 2007-08, a key economic indicator provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, is up significantly in 43 states, increasing the need for significant help among more than 28 million Americans.

“These results, when combined with current census and economic data, expose a discrepancy between Christians who believe they are doing enough and the reality that Christians are just scratching the surface in our communities,” said Steve Haas, vice president for church relations at World Vision.

But the study also reports that 60 percent of respondents “would support their church if it occasionally cancelled traditional services in order to donate that time to help the poor in their community”.

Christians are now being invited to close their churches and mobilize in projects within their communities.

 This caused me to wonder how much it costs to hold Meeting for Worship in the big meetinghouses here in the city, so I went to a Friend knowledgeable about the finances of New York Quarter.

He told me that it costs about $1,000 apiece for Fifteenth Street and Brooklyn to open the meetinghouses, heat them, light them, and clean them for each Meeting for Worship.

I am troubled.