Watching the news these days can leave you with a case of whiplash. One day we see images of white supremacists skirmishing with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, then we watch as scores of volunteers rescue neighbors and strangers from flooding in Houston. Are we a nation of hate or love? Are we divided or connected?
I recently attended an Episcopal service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a ceremony filled with thundering organ music, priests in crimson robes, and prayer after prayer. It had been years since I attended a religious service with so much pomp and finery, and I admit it was moving. The gorgeous stained-glass windows and soaring arches of the cathedral, the echoing hymns of the choir as it processed down the long aisle, the haunting recitative of the prayers. The only thing missing was silence.
The clerk of a Quaker Meeting has a pivotal role: he or she is supposed to lead the monthly business meeting and keep track of administrative tasks and how they are executed. When I first offered to serve as Meeting clerk for Reno Friends Meeting several years ago, I figured my background and skills as a former university professor and administrator would be just the ticket.
A woman called me once with a question: did Quakers have funerals? Her mother, who had been a First Day School teacher at a Colorado Friends Meeting, had recently died. The woman, who had little experience of Quakerism herself, wondered whether the Colorado Meeting would hold a service and what such a service would be like.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving seems to be about gathering your community, bringing family and friends together to share gifts of food and affection. It can be a chance to introduce a new girl- or boyfriend to the tribe, or reach out and include the lonely neighbor from down the street. It can offer precious moments with an aging grandparent or a goofy game of Hearts with cousins you haven’t seen in years.