The Moral Consequences of Climate Change

Climate change is not just about melting ice caps, worsening drought and rising sea levels. It is not just a crisis for plants, animals and the environment they inhabit. It is also a crisis for people. In fact, some people consider climate change as serious a moral issue as an environmental one, and an issue that could have grave consequences for society.

Pope Francis has issued a moral call for action to phase out use of fossil fuels. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the pope’s encyclical warned in 2015. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an alliance of U.S. government agencies that compiles climate science research, the impact of climate change on humans could be profound: homes destroyed by rising waters or severe storms, diseases such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease spreading, crops and potable water lost due to drought, people crippled or killed by increased air pollution. The program, whose work is available at globalchange.gov, points out that those most vulnerable to climate change are the poor, under-educated, those least able to adapt, and people already struggling with high rates of disease, hunger and societal disruption.

In A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, author Stephen M. Gardiner argues that we are failing in three ways to address the ethical dimensions of climate change. First, those living in wealthy countries are passing the impact of environmental degradation on to poorer, weaker nations. Second, we are saddling future generations with our legacy of environmental degradation. And, third, when we ignore the scientific evidence, we deceive ourselves about our responsibility. We must face up to our ethical failure, Gardiner says, and push our leaders and institutions to act before it’s too late.

Starting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, the Reno Friends will meet every other week for five sessions to discuss climate change and its consequences for social justice. Our goal is to find ways that we can do more, individually and together, to address these issues. We will explore impacts of climate change here in our Sierra Nevada, as well as legislative initiatives, how to change our everyday lives, how to protest effectively, and how to address the needs of those in the Reno area hurt by climate disruption.

Please join us if you are interested in reading and learning more about the ethical challenges of climate change or in debating how we, as citizens, might respond. The discussion group will meet on Wednesday evenings starting at 6:30 in the Quaker Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno. In addition to Feb. 22, we will meet March 8 and 22, and April 5 and 19. A reading list will be distributed in advance. You’re welcome to bring light snacks. Please contact me, the clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, at wswallow54 (at) gmail.com, if you are interested in attending.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Integrity for the New Year

Everywhere I turn today, I encounter the issue of integrity. Our recent presidential election raised repeated questions about integrity: who had it and who didn’t, whether journalists had integrity or were manipulating the truth, whether candidates were lying or obfuscating. And finally, in the end, whether the voting itself was conducted with integrity. Integrity, it turns out, may be one of the most compelling issues of our day, and a good place to start thinking about the New Year and what it may require of us.

Quakers consider integrity a fundamental principle. As the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith & Practice says: “The testimony of integrity calls us to wholeness; it is the whole of life open to truth. When lives are centered in the spirit, beliefs and actions are congruent, and words are dependable.”

These are simple words, yes, but living fully in the spirit, speaking the truth as we individually discern it, can be a demanding discipline. As Faith & Practice says, integrity means being responsible for our words and actions. It means “living a life of reflection, living in consistency with our beliefs and testimonies, and doing so regardless of personal consequences.” To me, this means keeping an open mind, looking for truth in evidence and knowledge, and sifting through information to sort fact from fiction. And once we discern truth, it means speaking up, even if that takes courage. Especially if it takes courage.

At the same time, integrity means maintaining an attitude of loving kindness. Just speaking the truth, without considering the feelings and sensitivities of those who will hear it, can be cruel and useless. Perhaps the central challenge of living a life of integrity today is discerning how to understand those who see the world differently. It helps me to believe that most people share core values – like decency, caring for the needy, longing for peace – and work from that common ground. Consider these words from an early Quaker, Edward Burrough, who in 1659 wrote:

“To the present distracted and broken nation: 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, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God and with one another, that these things may abound.”

Righteousness and meekness, side by side. Perhaps that’s a fitting place to start the New Year.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Centering During Silent Worship

When Quakers sit down to worship, they settle into silence. Many religions include short moments of silence in their services, but for the Quakers, silence is the heart of worship. The room goes still as we let go of everyday busyness. Individuals may rise occasionally to share a message out of the silence, but for the most part quiet reigns.

And yet, inside our heads, thoughts dance and twist about. As anyone who has tried to meditate knows, silencing one’s thoughts can be a challenge. Everything from grocery lists to worries about loved ones parades through the mind. Sometimes the procession makes a clatter; other times, a steady whisper of thoughts. But either way, it can be hard to settle.

At a recent “Quakerism 101” class on Silent Worship, our leader asked the circle gathered inside Reno Friends Meeting how they centered themselves during worship. The responses were illuminating.

While not all Quakers pray in a conventional sense, prayer is still one of the most useful ways of centering. One woman talked of using prayers of gratefulness to pull her attention inward. Another man said he looks around the room and prays for each person attending, and finds that when he is done his mind has settled.

Instead of praying, one woman said she tries to quiet her mind by listening for what God might be saying to her. This listening often yields surprising suggestions, messages that her conscious mind can only hear when she quiets the chatter in her head.

Some people said they try to clear the mind with simple meditation techniques, such as counting the in breath and out breath, then counting only the out breath, and finally not counting at all. Some try to relax their body bit by bit, releasing tension gradually, feeling themselves growing heavy in their chair. Others say they don’t try to stop the thoughts but instead consciously step outside them so they can watch the thoughts pass by without attaching to any of them.

The most moving suggestion came near the end when one man said he asks questions of the beloved family and friends he has lost during his lifetime. He said he used to wish he could get just another five minutes with love ones who have passed, but then came to understand that they were right there in his heart and in his head, waiting to talk. And so he has conversations with them. When he is done, his mind is centered.

Whatever it takes to quiet the spirit, Quakers figure out what works for them. I find that the great benefit of an hour of silent worship is that, no matter how long it takes to settle, there is always enough time for that deep, abiding silence that comforts and heals.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

The War Tax Alternative

One feature that distinguishes Quakers is the power and purpose of the Peace Testimony. Friends believe every person is a child of God, and they recognize God’s Light in everyone, including their adversaries. With that deeply held conviction, Quakers generally oppose war, believing it is inconsistent with God’s will. If we are asked to serve in the world as instruments of reconciliation and love, how can we wage war?

Most Americans today are unlikely to face being sent off to war against their will because our country has no military draft. Still, many Quakers are uncomfortable with American military might and the knowledge that their taxes support military operations. Some determined souls become war tax resistors, refusing to pay the portion of their taxes that would fund the Pentagon’s budget or putting that money aside in an escrow account rather than paying it to the federal government. But such civil disobedience can put resistors in jeopardy. Some have had their wages garnished or their cars and houses seized to pay back taxes.

A bill now before Congress provides an alternative path: it would give taxpayers opposed to participation in war in any form based upon their moral, ethical, or religious beliefs or training the right to have their federal taxes used for nonmilitary governmental purposes only. Pacifists could be faithful to their beliefs without withholding their taxes from the government.

The proposed legislation, called the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act (H.R. 2377), was introduced last May by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia; it’s the latest version of a bill first introduced in Congress in 1972. The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, a Washington, D.C., a not-for-profit social welfare organization, has worked to build public awareness and support for such a fund since the 1970s.

The campaign’s founder, retired physician David R. Bassett, developed strong moral objections to war and military service growing up during World War II. After graduating from medical school in the 1950s, he was directed to join the military medical corps. While not yet a Quaker himself, Dr. Bassett argued, with the help of Quaker friends, that he be allowed alternative service as a conscientious objector. After a long campaign of letters to the Selective Service, he was granted CO status. Instead of serving in the military, Dr. Bassett spent two years working with the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee as a doctor in India.

Later in life Dr. Bassett started the campaign for a peace tax fund because he recognized that – while thousands of Americans feel conflicted about paying taxes for military purposes – most are not willing to become war tax resistors. The fund would allow those opposed to war to pay 100% of their taxes without violating their religious or ethical convictions, and it would also allow the government to collect the taxes it is due by law.

As Quakers, we feel strongly the need for alternatives to supporting war. If you are interested in the campaign for the peace tax fund, visit the website at peacetaxfund.org. There are many ways you can help.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Quakerism 101

Have you ever wondered how Quakers came to be? The Religious Society of Friends can be a puzzling spiritual community, different in so many ways from other protestant religions. Even those familiar with Quakerism have unanswered questions. Who were the Early Friends, and how did they manage to invent such in interesting new way to seek God? What led them to worship in silence? How did they arrive at consensus around the Quaker testimonies?

Looking beyond the simple dress and distinctive Quaker hats of Early Friends, you might be surprised to find commonality with these passionate men and women, the founders who struggled to find spiritual truth and community in the political and social chaos of 17th-century England. To explore this rich legacy, Reno Friends this fall will offer six sessions of what we call Quakerism 101, reviewing the emergence of the Early Friends and how their faith developed, and taking a closer look into some of the nuts and bolts of Quaker practice.

The classes start on Oct. 2 with a look at Quakerism’s roots during the English reformation and at several important Quaker founders. The second session (Oct. 16) will explore The Light Within, the direct and unmediated experience of the Divine in each of us, plus Quaker Universalism. The third session (Oct. 30) will delve into the meaning of attendership and membership in a Friends Meeting.

We will hold two more sessions in November. On Nov. 6, we will examine Quaker Process and our management of Meeting business. On Nov. 20, we will look at worship and ministry, our spiritual life, activism in the Quaker community, silent worship and what it means to be a gathered meeting. The last class, on Dec. 11, will dive into Faith & Practice, our Quaker guidebook, as well as the core Quaker testimonies: Peace, Equality, Integrity, Simplicity, Unity and Harmony with Nature.

Many Quakers have written of their own understanding and experience of God, their faith and the testimonies down through the centuries. This trove of wisdom is rich indeed. Here is one of my favorite examples, drawn from the testimonies presented in Faith & Practice:

“We who are members of the Society of Friends have little to fall back on except as our experience with truth. We cannot resort to ritual or creed or ecclesiastical decisions for guidance.  We must find our way by seeing the hand of God at work in the weaving of the fabric of daily life.”

– Quaker Clarence E. Pickett.

Even if you think you know all about Quakers, please join us for this exploration into the heart of the Quaker world.

 

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Leadership in Quaker Meetings

What does it mean to be a leader in a Quaker Meeting? Technically there are no leaders in the unprogrammed Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, such as Reno Friends. Everyone is equal, and no one is in charge. But if there are no leaders, how does a Meeting organize to get its work done? How do Quakers determine how to worship, how to manage their business, how to grow?

Early Friends were defined, in part, by their rejection of the leadership and ministry of clerics; Friends turned instead to their personal experience to understand God. Even today, most Quaker Meetings operate without a pastor or minister. There are no deacons, nor a church board, as is common in many Protestant churches. Instead the Meeting, as a gathered community led by spirit, performs the functions of leadership collectively.

The foundation for this is articulated in the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guidebook, Faith & Practice:

“Ministry in word and act, responsibility for the good order and material needs of the Meeting, visitation, faithfulness in testimonies: all these things, in the measure of the Light that is given, are the responsibilities of persons in the Meeting.”

This means that all those affiliated with a Quaker Meeting bear a responsibility to contribute to the workings on the Meeting, however they can or feel led. Some serve on committees, such as Ministry and Oversight, which tends to the spiritual and personal needs of Meeting members and attenders. Some participate on Nominating, the committee that works to discern who can best fill each organizational role. Others will take responsibility for our finances or our buildings and grounds or will serve as clerk, the person who handles administrative procedures and running Business Meetings. At most Quaker Meetings, and at Reno Friends, all these tasks are done by volunteers.

Yet none of the individuals filling these positions have authority over the Meeting. That authority rests with the Meeting for Business, which gathers once a month to make decisions. Unlike most governing boards or groups, Quakers do not vote or adopt the will of the majority. Instead, they work to find common ground that will lead them to unity.

To reach unity on a decision, Quakers understand that those present at Business Meeting need to listen to each other, and to the spirit of God. Sometimes they pause and return to silence, to allow everyone to look within for the solution forward.

“By listening to the Divine in ourselves and in each other, Friends are better prepared to find God’s will. Friends should not listen for the most convincing argument, but for the greater understanding to which each contributes and to which each may assent…. When unity is realized, the outcome is deeply satisfying. It produces a sense of the rightness of the decision and a loving connection between members.” (PYM, Faith & Practice)

It can feel challenging, at times, for any small group to operate without the guiding hand of a leader. Sometimes unity is hard to find, and an issue may be tabled for another day, to give everyone more time to reflect. But we have faith that if we love and trust and listen to each other, we can usually find the path. As Faith & Practice says, “A united Meeting is not necessarily of one mind but it is all of one heart.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

 

 

Quaker Presidents and the Oath of Office

A recent news story about the U.S. Presidential Oath of Office got me thinking about Quaker presidents. The story focused on the words “so help me God” that many presidents add to the official oath, and whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would follow suit. But I was intrigued by another, more basic question:  because Quakers do not believe in oaths or swearing, would a Quaker president be required to take the oath at all?

The official oath is short and to the point:  I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution requires every president to tender the oath before he or she may assume power.

No doubt, the founding fathers wanted to make sure presidents committed publicly to uphold the Constitution, a cornerstone of rule by law rather than by the whims of a leader. And yet taking such an oath could violate the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends. As the August Query on Integrity and Personal Conduct says:

Friends believe that we are called to speak the truth. A single standard of truth requires us to conduct ourselves in ways that are honest, direct, and plain, and to make our choices, both large and small, in accord with the urgings of the Spirit. It follows that we object to taking an oath, which presupposes a variable standard of truth. Be true to your word.

Indeed, the oath’s alternative fourth word – “affirm,” rather than “swear” – was included in the oath by the founding fathers to accommodate Quakers and other religious groups that followed the biblical prohibition of swearing. As James says in the New Testament (James 5:12, KJV):  Above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

Quakers have served as president of the United States twice: Herbert Hoover held the office from 1929 to 1933, and Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1974. Ironically, neither man choose to use the optional word affirm when they took the presidential oath. It is sometimes reported that Hoover said “affirm,” but a newsreel shows him using the phrase “solemnly swear.”

As is often the case with the Quaker Testimonies, the Integrity Testimony helps guide Friends through the collisions of principle with the rules of other institutions, the mores of society, and the practical demands of the moment.  Our guiding document, Faith and Practice, sums it up this way:

Integrity is a demanding discipline. We are challenged by cultural values and pressures to conform. Integrity requires that we be fully responsible for our actions. Living with integrity requires living a life of reflection, living in consistency with our beliefs and testimonies, and doing so regardless of personal consequences. Not least, it calls for a single standard of truth. From the beginning, Friends have held to this standard, and have often witnessed against the mainstream. When they suffered in consequence of their witness against secular order, their integration of belief and practice upheld them in adversity.

Perhaps, in the end, it matters less how a President takes the oath and more what kind of leader that person proves to be. No matter who stands up next January to swear, or affirm, to uphold the Constitution, let us hold them in the Light.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

 

 

Marrying in the Manner of Friends

June is wedding season, and each year I like to think back to the lovely weddings I’ve witnessed over the years. One of the most moving was a Quaker wedding. One of my dear friends – the woman who introduced me to Quakerism – was married in the backyard of her family home in Colorado “in the manner of Friends,” as the Quakers say. Except for the fact that her marriage took place outdoors, rather than in a Quaker Meeting House, it was a true Quaker wedding.

What does it mean to be married “in the manner of Friends?” Quaker weddings often surprise people who have little experience of Quaker practice. Instead of a fancy ceremony with a minister preaching the virtues of marriage, a line of bridesmaids and groomsmen flanking bride and groom, and a church sanctuary decked out in flowers and ribbons, Quaker weddings are often quiet celebrations in modest settings.

The most interesting difference is the minister leading the service – there is none. In unprogrammed Quaker Meetings, such as Reno Friends Meeting, there is no recognized difference between clergy and laity, so there is no official that marries the couple. Quakers believe they are married by God. The Meeting that gathers for the wedding merely witnesses the couple’s declaration of intentions before God.

As George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, said:“For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests’ or the magistrates’; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”

A Quaker wedding usually starts like a typical Quaker Silent Worship, with everyone sitting in silence and people speaking out of the silence as they are led. Sometimes the couple to be married sits facing the rest of the group, and sometimes just in a front pew. When they are ready, they rise and exchange “declarations” with each other. They do not swear traditional wedding vows: the Quaker testimony of Integrity holds that Quakers should tell the truth at all times, so vows and oaths are unnecessary. The declarations are usually simple and egalitarian. As the 18th-century Quaker Lucretia Mott said:“In the true marriage relationship the independence of husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”

My friend’s wedding started with a period of worshipful silence. Next, the bride and groom rose and exchanged their promises to each other. After they sat down again, the Meeting continued in Silent Worship, with people rising occasionally out of the silence to share a message. The silence that day was deeply loving and sacred.

At the close of the wedding, everyone signed the marriage certificate as witnesses. Quaker couples often frame their marriage certificates and hang them in their homes, as a way to remember the community of beloved friends and family who witnessed their solemn marital promises.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

How We Give

I first started attending Quaker meeting because Silent Worship spoke to me like no other church service I’d ever experienced.  After a few months of attending, I decided to deepen my commitment to the Meeting by making regular contributions of my time and financial support.

Volunteering for a committee at the Meeting was easy, but figuring out how to give financially proved harder.  When I asked the worship clerk one Sunday, he looked around the room. It was a large, east coast Meeting, and there were about fifty Quakers gathered. “Well,” he said, “there might be someone here who could tell you how, but I don’t know who.”

The Quakers do not conduct a traditional church service, and they also do not pass the plate for donations.  At least not in any of the Meetings I’ve ever attended.  Sometimes there’s a small box or canister on a table near the door, but I’ve rarely heard anyone suggest attenders drop their contributions inside it. And unlike most Protestant churches, Quakers rarely use a pledge system.  A Meeting might make a special appeal, say if it needs funding for a new building or something unusual, but generally Quaker Meetings proceed as if money doesn’t matter.

But, of course, it does.  Reno Friends has an annual budget and is happy to accept donations to help us pay our First Day School teacher (our only staffing expense), and to offset the cost of utilities, insurance and upkeep of our Meeting House and First Day School. We also give to several local and national charitable organizations or Quaker organizations, and we support the quarterly and yearly Meetings that serve our region and the West Coast.

When we do discuss giving to our Meeting — usually at our monthly Business Meeting — we try to do so in a larger context.  As the 19th-century Quaker John Woolman said, “As Christians, all we possess are the gifts of God.  To turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives.” We recognize that some people have more time than money, or may feel that they have a special skill or expertise they can lend the Meeting to make our communal experience richer and more interesting.  Our Query on Stewardship says:  “From the indwelling Seed of God, we discover our particular gifts and discern the service to which we are called.”  Some might make phone calls to those who are sick, while others balance the books or help keep our campus tidy.  There are many ways to give to the Meeting.

In the end, I’ve learned to appreciate the Quakers’ way of keeping money off center stage, and I  appreciate the many ways Reno Friends give to our Meeting.  Everyone does what she or he can. If they have a handful of coins or a check to share, then they can slip it into the humble Quaker Oats canister that sits on our Meeting House table.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

HUMILITY AND THE MIGRANT CRISIS

The other day I saw a news photo of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of several Muslim refugees from the Middle East. As a Quaker, I had never seen this Maundy Thursday ritual performed. Having priests wash the feet of parishioners is the sort of high-church tradition the seventeenth-century Quakers rejected as obscuring the pure light and direct experience of God.

Nonetheless, I found the image of the 79-year-old pope and the migrants seated above him strangely moving. Washing a stranger’s gritty, smelly, earth-bound feet is a way of saying “let me be your servant,” an expression of deep humility. It was such a relief – after a difficult week of ISIS attacks in Belgium and political grandstanding about migrants – to see a world leader bend his knee to these fellow humans.

While we all understand the need to be on guard for terrorists trying to cross our borders, we also need to remember the power of humility in trying times. Unfortunately, humility is not a trait that gets much respect these days, particularly not in the heat of our current political season. Candidates trumpet their views as if they have the only answers, and followers seem especially inflamed and righteous. It makes me long for middle ground, a place where all of us who want the best for our country and the larger world could come together and listen with open hearts.

As the English Quaker Joseph Jon Gurney said in the early 19th century: “When the pride of the heart is laid low, when the activity of human reasoning is quieted, when the soul is reduced to a state of silent subjection in the presence of its Creator, then this ‘still small voice’ intelligibly heard, and the word of the Lord, as it is inwardly revealed to us, becomes a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths.”

It takes humility to accept that we don’t always know what’s right or how to respond in a difficult situation. Pride and posturing will not help us understand why emigrants have left their homes or what they are seeking, but perhaps humility will. Whether a flood of migrants is part of God’s plan or not, I cannot say. But it’s an opportunity to practice listening humbly to others, and to God. We will need to understand each other better to make progress in this chaotic world.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.